Leading Article: No thanks for season's plenty, just blame for indigestion

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The Independent Online
Sniff the air. Lick a finger and hold it to the wind. Something's coming, something good - to quote the West Side Story song - maybe tonight. Or in the New Year, anyway. The nation has started shopping again, and started moving house with enthusiasm. So, according to the Deputy Prime Minister, the good times must surely be on their way.

The sales help. After the Christmas excesses our material consumption has become a little more bargain conscious, but we haven't stopped shopping. It is as if, having gorged ourselves on Christmas pudding, we just keep eating. Only we kid ourselves that this time we're swallowing healthy green leaves instead.

The shopping frenzy seems to be more than a seasonal fluctuation. According to the unemployment figures, new jobs are being created fast. Although they aren't jobs for life these days, they aren't just jobs for Christmas either. And, to Mr Heseltine's wayward delight yesterday, house prices are rising again, too.

Well may the Deputy PM warble. Received wisdom tells us that this should be great news for the Government. Jobs for Christmas and prosperity for the New Year should lead gaily on to votes in the spring. When the economy is booming, say the pundits, governments get re-elected. When it crashes, they are turfed out. Through the Eighties and early Nineties economic confidence and support for the Conservative incumbents moved hand in hand.

But somehow the old story does not chime true this time. No one seems to believe it. In the past year or so, consumer confidence has indeed been rising, but support for the Conservatives has not. Of course the Conservatives could theoretically turn around a massive gap in the opinion polls and win a general election in May. Stranger things have happened. But even the most extreme Conservative optimists and Labour pessimists are tentative in their predictions that rising economic prosperity in the next few months can help the Conservatives win.

Voters are still grouchy. Had we been roaring into a boom for the past year or so, engines blazing, purses open, the public might have built up the confidence to show benevolence towards the Government. But the boom is neither big enough nor blatant enough to erase the memories of recent hard times. Stepping sedately out of the recession, skirts merely ruffling in the wind, may have been a sensible economic strategy for our inflation-prone nation, but it has not had much positive impact on British voters.

More important, British voters are getting wise to the boom thing. Soaring economic growth today means high inflation tomorrow, and painful recession the day after that. The trouble with 18 consecutive years in power is that you are still around to take the blame for the consequences of economic mistakes. So this time, the Conservatives who presided over the Lawson boom, the overheating of the economy and the explosion of the housing market were still in power through the recession and the repossessions. There is no one else to blame.

The Chancellor, Ken Clarke, is clearly well aware of this. Not for nothing has he avoided fuelling a huge consumer boom with further interest rate cuts and tax cuts at the end of this year. The Conservatives have a lot to do to rebuild their economic credibility in voters' eyes. Heralding a new boom will undermine all Ken Clarke's claims to be a safe pair of hands. And while it might - just might - kid voters all over again, it may also make them even more cynical and dismissive about Government claims. Someone should have explained this to Mr Heseltine before he bounced on to the radio yesterday lauding the benefits of an accelerating economy.

Confidence in the Conservatives' economic competence is not the only thing at stake, however. Voters feel wary altogether about Tory economic integrity. The Eighties felt really good. We thought we could have them for ever. We were told it was a "Tory" miracle. The deletion of those expectations had a huge effect. Graduates who went to university in the Eighties believed there were excellent jobs on monstrous salaries waiting out there with their names on. When they arrived in the labour market to find high graduate unemployment, they felt cheated. Likewise, the home owners who risked all to join the property-owning world lost faith when they went into negative equity. Disappointed people do not swallow promises so easily all over again.

But the biggest reason why the Government may find it hard to reap the political rewards of a growing economy next year is taxation. Having promised so much in terms of tax cuts to come before the 1992 election, the Conservatives were forced to raise taxes substantially instead. Remember what happened to George Bush? On the evidence of decades of presidential elections, George Bush should have won in 1992; the economy was growing, and he was in charge. But he was unable to reap the political benefits of growth himself because he had broken his promise to the voters. With "read my lips, no new taxes" ringing in their ears, voters could not bring themselves to vote for Bush again.

Economies do make a difference in elections. Usually the difference. And rising prosperity should bring some good news for the Government. But for all Mr Heseltine's cheery talk, he should remember that voters don't only look at a growing economy and vote for those in power: they look for someone they trust to sustain it.