Fraser Nelson

Cameron has the positioning right - but fiscal questions remain<br />

Cameron has the positioning right - but fiscal questions remain<br />
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Here, CoffeeHousers, is my take on this morning's Cameron interview:

1. General demeanor: excellent, articulate, confident. The complete opposite from Brown. It does make you think that he should wipe the floor with Brown in the TV debates.

2. “Last week we saw William Hague and George Osborne going to Afghanistan together. First shadow Chancellor, the man who is going to be in charge of the money, on the frontline seeing what is going on in Afghanistan”. Indeed, but the NHS pledge and deficit cut pledge imply deep cuts to the military. To govern is to choose, and Cameron has made his choice: NHS spending before the military. If I were Hague, I would not have joked about cutting the defence budget to punish the RAF for losing his bag en route there (as he did, see here). I’d recommend he asks the Treasury team for an illustrated projection about how the defence budget would have to look if NHS/DFIF is protected and the debt is increased at a slower rate than Labour. I suspect he would, then, make no more jokes about cutting the budget of our armed forces.

3. “We have a very frank and clear and positive message - the NHS is our no.1 priority, we do not want to see the state withdraw from that in any shape or form.” I do hope this was another of his mis-speaking moments. Alan Milburn explicitly wanted to see the state withdraw, and said the NHS should be regarded as a payment mechanism. It was the trade unions who fought Blair, saying they didn’t want to see the state withdraw from the NHS in any shape or form. Cameron seems to be clear about where he stands on this dividing line. He is retreating from the NHS reform agenda, and the NHS (and patient care) will be the worse for it.

4. “Darling said on the Today programme that other departments would be flat â€" that was completely misleading”. Indeed it was, as Coffee House said at the time. Privately, Darling admits that he misspoke. Cameron is right to highlight the fundamental difference in honesty, language and positioning. But is the gulf in rhetoric matched by a gulf in figures?

5. “Unlike the Prime Minister, I’m prepared to sit in this chair and say ‘yes there will be cuts’” - indeed. And, indeed, the Tory position is fundamentally more honest. But the difference is chiefly rhetorical, as it stands now at least, because the Tories have not said how much more they would cut.

6. “We think you have to go further than what the government say” on reducing the deficit, he says. But how much further? Labour is optimistic that this pledge is meaningless, and the Tories will go only a minimal bit further. This unnerves me, because it makes sense: if Cameron does protect the NHS budget, he would have to brutalise the defence and police budgets. I am far from sure that they could do this. Just a year ago, Osborne was saying it was logistically impossible to make real-term spending cuts for more than one year. Are we to believe that he can make 20 percent cuts in defence, etc? And how could he justify this departmental apartheid: the NHS squandering cash, with soldiers having to cancel training sessions? What about us all being in this together? So I do struggle to see how the Tories would go much further. And I do not discount Labour expectations that the Tories have, in effect, adopted Labour spending plans yet again.

7. Immigration. “I don’t support our population going to 70 million,” he said. Fairly significant - I’m concerned about immigration, for example, but do not sign up to the concern about the 70m target. Later, he is more radical still. “We’d like to see net immigration in the tens of thousands, rather than the hundreds of thousands.” This is implying an 80 percent cut or more on immigration (see chart, below). This creates space for a hardened Tory position on immigration later on. I do hope so - as I wrote in the magazine this week, the silence on immigration now has created a golden era for British neofascism. Cameron can do more than anyone else to end it (as Thatcher killed off the National Front with the ‘swamped’ word in the 1970s).

8. Tory cuts. Public sector pay freezes, a cut in Whitehall figures: this adds up to £7bn of cuts. The deficit is £170bn. The Tory strategy is to say that, in identifying 3 percent of the necessary cuts, they are giving details, whereas Labour are not. A good debating tactic, but we should not confuse this with an economic plan.

9. “I have moved the Conservative Party into the mainstream of debate.” Really? So the 8.12m million English voters who voted Tory in 2005 (Labour had 8.04m votes) were on the fringes? He has certainly moved the Tories more towards what Keith Joseph would call the Middle Ground (the space defined in relation to various players in Westminster), but this is not quite the same as the Common Ground (ie, what ordinary people are concerned about: immigration, etc).

10. “Do I have ambitions to radically change Britain? Yes, I do.” And I believe that he does, and that he probably will - but not on the basis of what he is saying in interviews right now. I do hope he’s saving the good ammo for later.

UPDATE: In answer to some CoffeeHousers...

MaisieW: I have always pointed out holes in the Tory logic, as well as Labour’s. I’m afraid I’m an equal opportunities pedant (not that this will win me many friends on this website).

Emil: all info about the national finances is publically available, although it always suits oppositions to pretend otherwise.

Peter from Maidstone: my point exactly.

Jez: I would like to see the Tories address immigration concerns head-on, using any language that they like. I understand the electoral reasons for not doing so, but my point is that the BNP profit from this

Oldtimer: you’re right, we should do analysis of CameronDirect meetings and we don’t.

Philip Walker: the opponents of 70 million population propose a “one in, one out” policy (Frank Field’s Balanced Migration website has more).

Tiberius: I hope so. But I doubt Cameron will have the luxury of so much time. Events will force him to be radical, and quickly.