Leading article: Bridging the Tory credibility gap

Wednesday 25 March 2009 01:00

What the country needs right now is straight talk and a strong lead, David Cameron said yesterday. The Conservative leader is good at saying the right things. Proper regulation of the financial markets is now vital, he continued, and the culture of the City needs to change so people understand they don't just have a responsibility to themselves but to society too.

Mr Cameron's difficulty is that he knows his party has a credibility gap on all this. Why should the public listen to the Tories, the champions of unbridled free markets, when it is unbridled free markets that have caused our present woes? Why should we believe that the party which brought us massive deregulation in the financial markets is now the right one to supervise re-regulation? His solution was to offer some elegantly turned phrases. People don't want to abandon markets, they want them reformed so they work properly. They want markets with morality and capitalism with a conscience. The Conservatives, being the party of law and order, can bring law and order to the financial markets.

Up to a point. To be convinced, we need to see some detail and Mr Cameron was rather short on that. He pledged to put the Bank of England back in charge of regulating the overall level of debt in the economy and, more vaguely, said he is "considering the suggestion" the Bank should be given power to regulate capital levels and borrowing on individual banks. But otherwise this was broad-brush stuff that tried to hold together old Conservative shibboleths about cutting bad regulation – like "the red tape that is strangling small business" – but imposing the good kind that stops the poorest people in the country paying for the mistakes of some of the richest.

There was another Tory speech yesterday from the historian Niall Ferguson. He suggested that Mr Cameron could not have an open global economy, a stable Britain and a small state unless Conservatives learned to embrace social change. There is something in this. What Mr Cameron outlined yesterday was baby steps towards a new Conservative economic philosophy. The real work of definition is still to come.

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