On the subject of the party conference, there have been mixed reviews for the Tories ‘never going to have had it so bad’ motif. To my mind, the Conservatives are fixated by two contrasting media images. The first is the desire to avoid the fate of Neil Kinnock’s shadow budget in 1992 – the one that enabled the Tories to run with the ‘Labour’s bombshell’ poster. The lessons of this election are burned also into the mind of Gordon Brown, which explains why both parties are engaged in elaborate footwork designed to wring figures out of the other, while being deliberately opaque about their own.
But, as the prospect of victory gets closer and closer, another precedent seems to be focusing Conservative minds: the cover of the economist after Thatcher’s first budget in 1980. “You Voted For This”. In other words, the Tories had an explicit mandate to start dishing out nasty medicine.
The next few years are going to be unpleasant by any standards. Spending will be cut – by more than either party is yet happy to admit. Taxes overall will rise, though we can hopefully expect something of a simplification. Hopefully (as far as I’m concerned) interest rates will remain low for as long as possible, but that’s going to be a poor lookout for the retired and those living on savings. Unemployment, always a lagging indicator, is going to stay high too. It is going, in other words, to be tough. The bare minimum that the Tories need if they want to win a second term is a clear doctor’s mandate for their first. If they had relied on the ‘sunshine winning the day’ routine of a couple of years ago, they would probably still have won the election (Gordon Brown: five more years! being perhaps the worst election slogan in recent history) but the decisions they would have then had to take would have seen them turfed out in short order.
This, I suspect, is why Cameron and Osborne stuck their necks out by presenting a programme of economic pain and an end to big Government – so that when the Guardian and the BBC start to complain they can say “weren’t you listening? This is what we said we were going to do, and we won an election on precisely this manifesto.”