Are we still willing to play along with David Cameron’s pain game?

Cameron plays badminton in the No 10 garden (Photo: EPA/Kerim Okten)

Bad luck and idiocy have undermined the Tories’ case for shared economic hardship writes The Daily Torygraph’s Benedict Brogan 

David Cameron’s most significant achievement as an opposition politician was to persuade the public that a national effort was required to restore the public finances to a semblance of health. Closing the structural deficit, as a prelude to paying down debt, was accepted as an existential necessity.

This was to be achieved through significant spending cuts and some tax rises, with growth doing the rest.

Underpinning the economics was a public consensus, secured by a Conservative argument about sound money and old-fashioned good housekeeping, that a collective belt-tightening was called for. Along with George Osborne, Mr Cameron persuaded us that it was time to cut up the credit cards, scale down the holidays and switch to own brands and packed lunches.

The Coalition’s first emergency Budget, which required government departments to deliver a programme of increasingly significant spending reductions by the end of this Parliament, was accepted without a murmur. By contrast, Greece, and more recently Spain, remind us how a society can fray or even fracture if there is no public agreement behind a government’s policies, or if its institutions are not sufficiently robust to withstand extreme internal and external pressures. The Chancellor’s slogan that “we are all in this together” was accepted as a basic if somewhat cheesy truth. The 50p rate of income tax kept pressure on the wealthiest, while public sector workers endured a pay freeze and those on low incomes lost some of their tax credits. The pain was to be shared equally in the national interest.

The Budget has unsettled all that. The latest polls show how much has changed. Labour has latched on to the perception that the pain is no longer being shared. Instead, the wealthiest have been given a break with the 50p rate reduced to 45p, while pensioners have lost their age-related special allowance – the so-called “granny tax”. That at least is how the public see things. Mr Cameron’s approval rating, recorded by YouGov, fell to minus 27 on Sunday, his worst score since he became Tory leader. Labour has put on a 10 point lead. Confidence in the Government, and in Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne as stewards of the economy, is evaporating. The Tories are saved by Mr Miliband’s ratings, which are even worse – minus 41.

From extensive conversations with the top duo’s closest supporters, it seems that a fortnight of bad luck, ministerial idiocy and some incompetence has left a gnawing doubt about the state of what should be the Coalition’s greatest asset. The fear for those around the Prime Minister and the Chancellor is that the public no longer accepts unreservedly the Government’s case for a collective effort. Indeed, voters now wonder whether that effort is being shared at all. This could prove to be a grievous blow to the very foundation of this administration, I am told, and it is self-inflicted. Everything Mr Cameron will ask the country to endure in the next three years will be harder to justify now that he is no longer given the benefit of the doubt.

The footage of a Tory treasurer touting access for cash certainly made things worse, while Francis Maude’s ill-judged advice on keeping a spare jerry can in the garage encouraged the suspicion that we are in the hands of a bunch of rich idiots. In Downing Street, where they talk of an “omnishambles” – the term coined by the political sitcom The Thick of It – the post-mortems are still raging. By all accounts, the Prime Minister has been unsettled by recent events, and is pondering how to steer himself out of the spin. The temptation in a skid is to yank the wheel, and he is not short of advice on how to change party and government structures to protect himself against further disasters. All manner of shortcomings have been identified by those around him.

It is accepted, for example, that Mr Cameron is near unique in tolerating a No 10 machine that is dominated by the Civil Service rather than political advisers. The reason is two-fold. First, he is genetically more interested in being Prime Minister than party leader; a technocratic Downing Street rather than a political one suits him better. Second, he has overcompensated for the errors of the Brown years; where his predecessor was obsessively hands-on, Mr Cameron is happy to let others take the lead, and where Mr Brown was relentlessly political, Mr Cameron prefers to keep politics out of it as much as possible.

The other failing that has become apparent is that the fortunes of the squeezed middle are not hard-wired into the thinking of either Downing Street or the Treasury. The Budget may have delivered big improvements for those struggling in difficult times, but there is no one among the bright young things around the Prime Minister and the Chancellor who has ever had to worry about the price of a tank of petrol.

Mr Osborne, meanwhile, is being castigated in private by his supporters for what one described to me as the “clever dickery” of the granny tax “simplification”. The complaint that the Chancellor is prone to Brown-like deceptions is getting louder. Sympathisers say it disguises a lack of confidence on his part in his ability to persuade the public of his case. Others worry that the entire Tory political effort is distorted by a dangerous complacency, namely that Mr Miliband will never persuade the electorate to make him prime minister. “We rely on focus groups and an assumption that Miliband is a joke. We shouldn’t,” one senior Cameroon says.

All eyes are now on the May elections in London and for local authorities in England and Scotland. The next month will see Mr Cameron stressing his chosen priorities of enterprise, families, welfare reform and health. He will be summoning ministers to account for their progress in delivery meetings. They will also be reminded of the perils of “doing a Maude” and straying beyond the agreed message. Expect an emphasis on helping families with the cost of living. Work is being done, for example, on easing the impact of rising fuel bills by improving action against price gouging. On welfare reform, ideas are being developed to challenge assumptions: young workers on low incomes often find they have to live with Mum and Dad to help with costs – why shouldn’t those on benefits not do the same rather than get free housing? Overall, Mr Cameron wants to be able to demonstrate that he is driven by Conservative values of thrift and hard work.

The Chancellor and the Prime Minister evince an impressive calm in adversity, but behind the scenes senior figures are shaken, and offering advice. The Prime Minister has been told that he is in danger of throwing away something precious, namely an invaluable public consensus that austerity is needed and that the Government’s plan is the right one.

This, senior Tories say, matters more than passing excitements about pasties and jerry cans. Those agitating for the deckchairs in the party and Downing Street to be moved about will be disappointed. Instead, Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne will try to get back to the only thing that will save them come the next election: governing well enough to persuade the electorate that the pain yet to come is worth it.

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