For the last 15 years, a four-letter word has terrified and paralysed the Conservative leadership: cuts. When it has been deployed by Gordon Brown on the electoral battlefield, the Tories have had no defence. Even after they surrendered and signed up to Labour’s spending plans, Mr Brown still accused them of planning ‘deep and painful cuts’. It is, as it happens, a charge entirely without foundation. Even now, the only people openly saying that state spending is too high are a bunch of supposed oddballs: Norman Tebbit, John Redwood — and 72 per cent of the British public.
The last group has crept up almost entirely undetected upon Westminster — which is so often the last place to realise which direction the rest of the country has taken. An old orthodoxy still reigns in SW1: that it is cruel and heartless to want cuts, and that higher state spending is the non-negotiable priority of modern, compassionate Britain. Yet outside the Westminster village, the public is growing increasingly incensed about the way ministers are spending as if the party will never end — from the expenses claimed by Jacqui Smith to cover her husband’s cinematic tastes to the NHS supercomputer.
As no party formally proposes spending cuts, the issue tends not to be raised in opinion polls — so The Spectator decided to make its own inquiries. Snapshot surveys often give a deceptive answer to such questions, as people’s minds change in the course of an election campaign as they are subjected to the case for and against. So we commissioned PoliticsHome to use its new technique: so-called deliberative polling. This involved asking a carefully balanced group of 1,406 people various questions, then asking them to consider the arguments — then asking the question again.
When asked if the government should conduct a new ‘stimulus’ in the next budget, our respondents were sceptical: 56 per cent against and 32 per cent in favour. We then advanced the arguments. That stimulus means ‘real help now to families and businesses through these difficult times, which will help us recover more quickly’. Just 32 per cent found this convincing. When asked whether ‘borrowing yet more for giveaways with limited impact is simply reckless’ a decisive 67 per cent agreed.
So far, so Tory: this is George Osborne’s argument. But not even the shadow chancellor argues that government ‘spends much too much money on programmes and services’. Yet our poll showed 54 per cent agreed with this statement. A further 18 per cent believed it was a ‘little too much’ money: in total, therefore, 72 per cent believe that spending has risen too high. Just 15 per cent consider spending too low. The cutters outweigh the spenders by four-to-one. All they need is a party to vote for.
Officially, the Conservatives are still committed to increasing state spending year after year. But David Cameron appears to be embarked on something of an intellectual journey. Last weekend, for example, he declared that it is ‘morally irresponsible to rack up more debts for our children to pay off’ — yet without cuts, national debt would be ratcheted up by a third. Cameron has produced a powerful poster of a baby, saying it will be born with £17,000 of Gordon Brown’s debt. Yet without spending cuts, this same baby would be liable for £27,000 after the first term of a Tory government.
Yet the very fact of the baby poster indicates a significant shift in Tory thinking: at last, the message of small-state fiscal conservatism is at the heart of the party’s presentation. Or, more aptly, ‘save the country’ conservatism — because the national debt will have risen by £5,700 in the time it takes you to finish this sentence. The Crewe & Nantwich by-election showed that a campaign against tax — in that contest, the abolition of the 10p tax rate — can have deep popular appeal. The key to winning the next election may lie in arguing the same about debt.
Time was when the Tories said all this regularly: Labour’s spending plans, they once told the electorate, would mean a ‘tax bombshell’. Brown’s brilliant innovation was to invert this and claim that Tory tax cuts could mean fewer nurses and police on the beat. The Tories were so stunned by this role reversal, their self-confidence destroyed by Black Wednesday and — in subsequent years — by three election defeats, that they dared not argue back. It was a complete intellectual victory for Mr Brown, who celebrated with a state spending bonanza unsupported by tax revenues and unmatched by any other developed nation.
Now the Tories are shaking themselves free of Mr Brown’s spell, dropping his language and searching for their own new political rhetoric. There is talk of ‘spending’ again, rather than ‘investment’. Significantly, Mr Osborne, I understand, will no longer talk in terms of spending ‘growth’ — a discreet U-turn, which perhaps few will notice. It means, in effect, that substantial spending cuts are no longer ruled out — but that this will not be advertised.
The next step is to go public. One message being considered by Osborne is to ‘cut spending and raise taxes to lower debt for our children’ — an unpleasant prospect, but at least an honest one. In the Spectator/PoliticsHome poll, 72 per cent say they are seriously worried by the national debt. There is a large, attentive audience waiting for Mr Cameron to say he will bring government spending back under control — that is to say, bring it down; that he will adopt a ‘save-the-nation’ cuts strategy; and in so doing, join the mainstream of public opinion.
PoliticsHome interviewed 1406 UK adults by email between 25–26 March. Results are weighted by party identification to reflect the UK at large.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 4, 2009