This week, the Tories partied like it was 1984. I couldn’t have been the only one to be surprised by just how blue the conference was. Not just in terms of its austere outlook – only Eric Pickles’s Dickensian face seemed to manage much in the way of a smile – but, of course, also in terms of policy. There was even a moment when Theresa May was asked on live television how an incoming Tory government would deal with public sector strikes, in the Post Office or elsewhere. Her answer did not put much distance between her party and the Nasty one of old.
What to make of this gamble? Deborah Orr’s response was typically mixed – a sort of liberalista’s certainty that the Tories could only sound reasonable by stealing Labour’s policies, but an inherited conviction that they were also the same old selfish Toffs as always. The conference was notable for how much in dialogue it was with Labour’s of the previous week, and herein lied the confusion: the Tories have for years seemed to live on a different plant to the rest of us, but now, in addressing the same problems and issues Labour have identified, they have both moved back towards respectability and, naturally, assimilated the Labour years into their philosophy. Cameron, in his speech on Thursday, said that not everything Labour had done was bad, that his party would keep the minimum wage, devolution and civil partnerships. (Quite how Cameron’s love of gay rights sits with his European partners it is hard to tell.)
This should not confuse true left-wingers (naturally, Guardianistas often don’t count). The Conservatives are talking about the same issues but applying an entirely different emphasis. They believe, too – and a ComRes poll seems to support their view – that the public are ready for that emphasis: public spending cuts, a freeze in civil servant pay, a renewed distrust of the state, and, this built up by month’s of clever Tory campaigning, a basic assumption that things must get worse. As Janet Daley keeps saying, if you know that, you will sensibly choose the people who believe in taking an axe to the state.
The Tories’ week has been defined by the assumption that Labour are too sick and exhausted to manage anything like a counter-narrative to all this. If they could, the gamble would be far more risky – people are not, after all, embracing Tory policy so much as rejecting Labour personality. In an interview in today’s Telegraph, Gordon Brown begins to grasp his counter-argument: “[The Tories] are pessimists; they’re for an age of austerity, they’re for cutting the help, therefore allowing unemployment to continue to rise. […] Do people want a party that has a strategy for getting out of the recession, or do they want a party that’s so pessimistic about Britain, they tell you in advance they’re giving you an age of austerity?”
Brown’s credibility, in part thanks to the Tories’ success in pushing the terms of the debate onto dire economic ground, is currently low when it comes to making these sorts of arguments. If he can keep pushing them, though, and find a way to frame the Tories’s big gamble as selfish and counter-productive, he may still have a chance. In the meantime, Cameron will keep being ‘honest’ – for which you can from hereon in read ‘Tory’.