Thursday, March 19, 2009

Easy rider

It has become almost an article of faith among the left that the Tories in general, and David Cameron in particular, has received an astonishingly easy ride from the media, and have yet to be challenged on their actual policies.  These policies are then derided as either unreconstructed Thatcherite red meat, or as shallow and vacuous presentationalism – sometimes, confusingly, both at once.

There is, of course, some truth in this.  The Tories do face less severe questioning from the media – just as all oppositions do.  Oppositions have the luxury of pencilling in positions, and have the benefit of deniability, which Governments simply don’t have.  That tooth-grindingly awful Sion Simon interview this morning was a classic case in point.  Oppositions can criticise the current problems, and can get away without proposing specific solutions.  Ministers can’t.  It’s also a good general rule that unpopular Governments stop catching the breaks.  The dog days of Major’s administration was coloured by repeated complaints that the press were letting Blair get away with murder.

But in this case, how true is that Cameron’s party are unusually policy-lite?  There’s an article in Alastair Campbell’s super soaraway New Statesman that rehearses pretty much all the standard complaints, although there’s something a little odd about a rash of media articles criticising the, um, media for their lack of scrutiny of the Tories.

There’s the usual degree of disingenuousness in it, for example on education – which is the one area where pretty much everyone agrees that the Tories have a policy that is both radical and settled.

In May 2007, Cameron pledged that no new grammar schools would be created under the Tories. But, under fire from the right, he backtracked and left the possibility open. By this February, he was saying that “we’ve got to bust open the state monopoly on education” and talking of the need to increase “competition”.

At the risk of getting into all that grammar school stuff all over again, I would point out that the grammar school position never changed – it was always the case that grammar schools where they exist won’t be closed, but that there are no plans to extend them across the country.  Equally the last sentence here, about increasing competition beyond a monopolistic state provider, has nothing to do with grammar schools at all.

Had Kenneth Clarke, who also stood for the leadership in 2005, been elected, he would have made ridding the party of its ideological commitment to tax cuts the Tories’ own “Clause Four” moment. But George Osborne, the shadow chancellor whom Cameron will never sack, has always insisted that they do not need any such moment. In fact, on Osborne’s advice, Cameron abandoned the Tories’ commitment to government spending plans in November. So, far from resisting calls for tax and spending cuts, they are backing them just when these are least needed. 

I’d be astonished – in fact, utterly incredulous – if Ken Clarke had ‘rid the party of its ideological commitment to tax cuts’.  Unless you assume that the current levels of taxation are either ideal or too low, there will always be space for cutting taxes.  Spending cuts too are now inevitable – as the Government has acknowledged by announcing, um, spending cuts.  If the argument is that Cameron has been calling for instant, unfunded tax cuts now now now – well, I’d like James MacIntyre to point me to them.  I’d been under the impression that the Tories deliberately hadn’t been doing this.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives remain the party of the very rich, proposing to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £2m. They failed to condemn the practice of short-selling shares last September and the party’s opposition to bankers’ lavish bonuses has been a last-minute conversion.

Inheritance tax as it stands is paid by, what, 7% of estates, as opponents of cuts delight in telling us.  However, the important statistic is that as it stands, some 37% of estates would be liable for IHT.  In other words, IHT encourages an enormous amount of behavioural change to avoid becoming liable for it.  As such it is extremely inefficient and falls, not on the ‘very rich’ who can afford accountants to help them avoid it altogether, but on the middle class who can’t.  My preferred option has always been to exempt primary dwellings from IHT (though hey!  Another few years and this won’t be a problem any more anyway) but to characterise the IHT move as only for the very rich is to miss the point.

With Duncan Smith’s guidance, Cameron has developed his “broken Britain” theme, and promises to reward married couples with tax breaks, thus satisfying the old Tory urge to penalise single mothers.

I’ve never been convinced by this line of argument.  Do benefits for the disabled ‘penalise’ the fit?  Does child benefit ‘penalise’ the childless?  It’s just not an argument that works.

Other than their relative youth, however, Barack Obama and David Cameron share little: they are diametrically opposed on every issue, from Europe to the Middle East, to the need for fiscal intervention. It is not surprising, as we reported last year, that Obama is said to have described Cameron as a “lightweight”.

Every issue?  Really?  Hmm.  And for God’s sake, this ridiculous unsourced ‘lightweight’ thing – you’re saying that you said that someone said that Obama said…  What is this?  A playground game of Chinese whispers?

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