‘You’re going to feel some pressure,’ say dentists as they prepare to inflict pain. The more honest they are, the more tolerable the experience tends to be. So it is with political actions that have foresee-able adverse consequences: as much as voters dislike those consequences, they dislike being lied to even more.
David Cameron’s interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr last weekend was another minor milestone on the road to Number 10. Faced with a redundant economic policy — the promise to ‘share the proceeds’ of non-existent economic growth — the Tory leader and George Osborne correctly deduced that new battle-lines could be drawn: honesty about the austerity measures that lie ahead versus Gordon Brown’s dishonest talk of continued ‘investment’. But astute analysis is one thing; following through its logic quite another.
It is very much to Mr Cameron’s credit that he acknowledges both the gravity of the task confronting him as Prime Minister in waiting and — harder still — the extent to which we shall all pay a price. ‘It’s incredibly daunting, the scale of the challenge,’ he told Mr Marr, adding: ‘I can’t remember an opposition leader who in opposition has looked the British public in the eye and said: “You know, we are going to cut public spending.” We have to do that. We have to be clear about that.’ The first phase of his leadership, the so-called ‘decontamination’ strategy, was an exercise in prettification, a wrapping of Toryism in cuddly language and images, a husky-hugging promise that all would be well. The second phase is proving to be of an altogether different character.
When they promise savings, all politicians, of whatever stripe, pledge to cut ‘waste’, bureaucracy and quangos. Such promises are always depressingly vague. But they are made with such wearying predictability for one simple reason: ‘waste’, bureaucracy and pointless committees stuffed with placemen have no defenders, no champions who can embarrass or intimidate a government. The problem is that every other line of spending does.
Mr Cameron has been criticised for telling Mr Marr that he would remove tax credits for households which earn more than £50,000 a year. This would indeed be an audacious and widely unpopular form of means-testing. It would be a frontal attack on the idea of ‘progressive universalism’: the principle that everyone gets something, however small, in the great state handout. It would hit 130,000 families immediately and unsettle many more. It is a proposal that would undoubtedly hurt Middle Britain.
Considered in isolation, this would indeed be an objectionable and vindictive proposal. Why should such voters, soaked for more than a decade by New Labour, pay yet again? The answer is to be found in the broader context of what Mr Cameron has correctly labelled ‘an era of austerity’: the bleak reality that nobody is going to be immune from the hardships ahead, the measures required to get the country back on to an even economic keel. The sooner we all recognise that, the better. The Tory leader could easily play to the gallery and pretend that Middle Britain will somehow be exempted from the pain. But that would be a lie.
Mr Cameron still has many questions to answer. We wish he had not ring-fenced NHS spending, massively constraining his room for manoeuvre; indeed, we wonder how long such a ring-fence will prove sustainable. But Mr Cameron has passed the first test of a party leader who aspires to take office in the midst of an economic crisis: he is ready to inflict pain upon those with vocal champions and electoral power. He knows that we are all going to ‘feel some pressure’ — and then some.