It was not a huge surprise when Ken Clarke rowed back this afternoon on his comments to the Telegraph about tax breaks for married couples. The minister without portfolio was hardly going to get through the first interview he has given since the reshuffle without saying something he would later have to 'clarify'. But he made another interesting observation to the newspaper about the Tories' 2015 strategy. He said:
'If we are back to strong growth by the next election, we probably won’t need to campaign. If at the next election, the economy is in strong normal growth, George Osborne will be given the Companion of Honour or something and we will all get safe back.'
Arguing that anyone who is certain the country is returning to strong growth is 'being very optimistic', Clarke adds:
'What I am confident we will be able to say at the next election is we were a strong hand on the tiller.'
These remarks demonstrate the shift in thinking that has taken place in the Conservative party over the past year. Whereas the original hope was that 2015 would be an election in which David Cameron and George Osborne could point triumphantly at Ed Miliband and Ed Balls and say that they had succeeded in clearing up the mess that Labour had left behind, now the campaign has a rather more nuanced slogan: and this week's GDP figures have not changed that. Clarke believes that his party will have to draw greater distinctions between its plan and the Balls plan, pointing out that Britain would be even farther behind had Labour been steering the course between 2010 and the 2015 election. Other Conservative MPs are looking increasingly to the welfare budget as a key electoral battleground, where Labour faces its own internal divisions on how far to cut benefits. This will be another example of a 'strong hand on the tiller' in 2015.