It used to be that political parties were easily defined by their policies. Not any more. As the battle for Britain’s centre-ground has intensified, so have the lines blurred. Even so, until recently, they had identifiable measures they could call their own. No longer. Since the general election, and particularly at the party conference this week, we’ve been treated to a flurry of Conservative announcements that are presented as new ideas but, on closer inspection, have been “borrowed” from elsewhere.
We saw the new Infrastructure Commission lifted straight out of Ed Miliband’s manifesto into Tory policy and, to complete the slam-dunk, the hiring of New Labour architect Andrew Adonis to run it.
In his speech, George Osborne made no mention of where the notion of freeing up councils to manage the cash from their business rates sprang. Partly, it was the brainchild of Kevin Davis, the Tory council leader in Kingston, south-west London, who said in January that councils should be allowed to raise or lower rates, and keep the cash. And at the election, it was Labour that promised to allow councils to retain the money raised, instead of going through the laborious process of paying the money over to the government, only for Whitehall to return it in the form of grant funding.
Osborne’s rabbit, the one of which he is most proud, that he repeatedly refers to as proof of his caring side, and has enhanced his reputation for Machiavellian calculation, is the national living wage. Did he have a “eureka” moment? Possibly, but only when he decided to nick it from someone else. Labour said it would introduce it, and so did Osborne’s potential main challenger for the Tory leadership, London Mayor Boris Johnson. Clever George went ahead and grabbed it, and stole both their thunders. Not only that, he trumped their figure. Their mooted rate was £8 an hour by 2020; Osborne plumped for £9.
If the attack on those with non-domicile privileges seems familiar, that’s because it is. Labour said it would abolish non-dom status. The Tories will not go that far, but it will be restricted. On the cribbing goes. The Liberal Democrats thought they had come up with a smart move where mental health patients are concerned, promising that 95 per cent would be seen in 18 weeks. They had; so much so that the Tories casually waltzed in and nabbed it. Another Lib Dem policy was to assert that by 2020, nobody would pay tax on their first £12,500 of income. The Tories liked that one, too. You know the result. Shared parental leave for grandparents? A Tory original? Nope. Labour again.
It takes real chutzpah to do this on such a grand scale, on the biggest stage and in front of activists, many of whom, while they may not know the provenance of what they’re hearing, may think it sounds a bit too lefty for their liking.
Such is the confidence of Tory high command that this is how they can stake out the centre. It’s as if they’re saying: “Anything that belongs there is ours.”
New Labour did something similar and won three successive general elections. The centre is where the bulk of the British electorate reside; the Tory intention is to colonise it, give it a light blue makeover, and call it home. The party justifies this approach by hailing themselves One Nation Tories: they’re pursuing “social Conservatism”; they hold “progressive Tory” values.
In one section of Osborne’s conference speech he went out of his way to pay tribute to Labour for founding the NHS. Usually, such plaudits are then followed by a barb along the lines of “and look what a mess they made of it”. Not on this occasion. Instead, he used the creation of the health service to highlight its universality, something that’s there for everyone, wealthy people too – One Nation, in marked contrast to Corbyn’s Labour and its bias towards the poor. Osborne projected himself as a unifier.
The danger in this clamour for the centre ground is that those who occupy it can lack colour; they’re not so easily associated with the party to which they belong. It was precisely that lack of character – paint everything beige – of his opponents that allowed Corbyn to appear strong and recognisably Labour, and made him appeal to so many party members.
In charging to the centre, Osborne should be careful that he does not open the door for his leadership rivals, Johnson, and Theresa May, for them to lay out their solidly Tory credentials.
On the EU, the Tory leadership will campaign to stick with it, once reforms have been achieved. Johnson is indicating, though, that he will argue for a Brexit – a move that would undoubtedly see him become the “true blue” darling of the wider Tory membership.
And on immigration, May delighted the party faithful with her stance. By snatching more and more from Labour and the Lib Dems, the Tories may put their flag on the centre. But it’s a fine line, between appealing to disaffected Labour and Lib Dem voters, and alienating their own members altogether.
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