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Has Dave abandoned the self-made man?

Cameron’s inclinations are to help the rich and the ‘romantic’ poor and do little for those who’ve bettered themselves, says Ross Clark. But can he rely on the middle-class vote?

13 January 2010

12:00 AM

13 January 2010

12:00 AM

Cameron’s inclinations are to help the rich and the ‘romantic’ poor and do little for those who’ve bettered themselves, says Ross Clark. But can he rely on the middle-class vote?

There may be no big idea but there is an important concept lurking on the back page of the Conservatives’ draft manifesto on health. And if party strategists want to get through the election campaign without offending a large sector of its core vote, they had better make sure it stays there. The idea is worded thus: ‘we will weight public health funding so that extra resources go to the poorest areas with the worst health outcomes through a new health premium’.

Put another way, if you live in a poor area, the Conservatives will spend more on your health than if you live in a wealthy area. It isn’t just health to which this principle is to be introduced. The Tories have already announced that they want to fund their new independent state schools partly by means of a ‘pupil premium’ — which would mean schools receiving extra funding for taking poor children on to their rolls.

At the launch of the draft manifesto last week, Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, described the new thinking as ‘progressive conservativism’. Some might call it enhanced socialism. Instead of ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’, the motto of a Cameron government might be ‘from each according to his means, to each according to the inverse of his means’. It is one thing asking better-off taxpayers to accept that they are being asked to pay an above-average contribution for a service that will be provided universally to all. It is quite another when you are telling those taxpayers that they will be paying more, yet receiving inferior public services to those provided to the poor. I can’t see it going down very well among Tory voters when they start reading headlines along the lines of pensioner denied knee operation because she lives in wealthy area.

The ‘health premium’ and ‘pupil premium’ are making the character of a Cameron government clearer by the day. It is going to be a government for the rich and for the poor, but with rather less on offer to those in the middle. For the rich, there is an eventual cut in inheritance tax to look forward to. In fact, it seems as if the Tories may well enter the general election campaign with just two firm tax-cutting pledges: inheritance tax and stamp duty on share transactions — an equally juicy offering for the wealthy.

For the poor, there is the health premium and the pupil premium. There is also a promise to give social housing tenants a 10 per cent equity stake in their homes and a ‘right to move’: they would be able to demand that the council or housing association which owns their home sell it and buy another one for them anywhere else in the country.

For those in the middle, it is much harder to discern in the policy published so far any convincing reason to vote Conservative. For them there are only tax rises, benefit cuts and, if they work in the public sector, pay freezes to look forward to. In a speech last April, David Cameron warned that his ‘government of thrift’ would be targeting the 130,000 families whose combined income exceeds £50,000 and who currently receive tax credits. True, it is absurd that the state should be paying benefits to people earning this level of income: they are simply being paid back some of their taxes, minus a slice in administration costs. But here is the sting: Cameron is promising to withdraw the benefits without promising any corresponding tax cut.

The Tories have made a showcase of their education policy, promising a Swedish-style revolution of independent state schools. But what is in it for the middle classes if these schools are going to be incentivised to give places to poor children? Cameron has ruled out any extension of selection on academic merit. He is highly unlikely to do anything, on the other hand, to interfere in private education. A Conservative school system, therefore, promises to be much like a New Labour one, only more so. Billions will be spent tackling low educational attainment in poor areas. The wealthy will continue to buy their way out of state education and put their children through highly academically selective private schools. Meanwhile, bright pupils in the middle will continue to be deprived of the leg-up that was once provided by grammar schools.

Why is the Conservative party turning its back on the class which has provided its core vote for the past 30 years? Much revolves around the personal character of David Cameron. As has been noted in these pages before, he has a preference for surrounding himself with a small band of like-minded folk, many of whom attended Eton or other prestigious public schools, live in a concentrated area of west London, and attend the same parties. Conservatives of lower birth have been gently pushed aside. David Davis resigned as shadow home secretary and launched his vainglorious campaign against surveillance after apparently being excluded from Cameron’s inner circle. Graham Brady had to resign so that he could speak out on grammar schools.

Cameron shows little affinity for the self-made men of the Tory party, the gritty northern and Midlands industrialists and car salesmen who became the backbone of the party during the Thatcher years — the ‘garagistes’ as Alan Clark memorably described them. William Hague, the son of a Rotherham lemonade manufacturer, is the only prominent member of this class in the shadow cabinet, and his rise precedes that of his leader’s. Cameron’s idea of an entrepreneur, as he has reminded us twice in his conference speech, is his own wife, the daughter of a baronet who landed a job as creative director with the posh stationery company Smythson. Mrs Cameron has been credited with revitalising the company with a handbag named after her daughter Nancy, and was involved in a management buyout which netted her an estimated £70,000 when the company was sold on. But to single her out as a great entrepreneur is stretching it a bit, especially in a party which counts among its supporters large numbers of people who have taken big risks to set up businesses from scratch.

What David Cameron does have, on the other hand, is a romantic notion of the poor. This is not uncommon among people born into comfortable surroundings — but is entirely alien to garagistes. If you are brought up on a Teeside council estate and then go on to make a small fortune making spanners or selling Toyotas, you tend to have a contemptuous attitude towards people moaning about the size of their benefit cheque. This greatly troubles David Cameron, who sees harsh attitudes towards the poor as one of the reasons for his party’s lack of success in three elections.

Heartless though they may be, the industrialists have a point. The poor are not noble wretches in want of a patrician to offer them a warm bed for the night; not in modern Britain, anyway. If Teesiders suffer more ill-health than residents of Surrey, it is more because of their smoking and drinking habits. You don’t cure the problem by throwing money at them. Similarly, low education attainment cannot be put right through higher spending on poor pupils; it is a result of low aspiration and lack of value in education. If you want people to better themselves, you have to reward self-help, not intensify the benefits trap by promising people better public services if they remain poor.

An ideological battle looms between the Tory party’s patricians and meritocrats, between those who want to battle for the souls of the poor and those who want to help people who have helped themselves. If the former think they can take middle-class votes for granted, they should remember that Tony Blair won three elections by shamelessly targeting middle-class interes
ts. There is an open goal awaiting whichever party decides to champion them this time around.

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