Peter Hoskin

Labour may not be able to exploit one of the Tories’ biggest weaknesses - but that doesn’t mean others won’t

Labour may not be able to exploit one of the Tories' biggest weaknesses - but that doesn't mean others won't
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Here at Coffee House Towers, we frequently point out the risks with the Tories' pledge to keep on increasing health spending in real terms.  As I suggested last week, the two main problems are that it plays up the Brownite idea that spending is a good thing in itself, and it could force the Tories into a position from which they can't row back in government.  Now, in a acerbic article in the Guardian - in which he describes Tory policy as "an incoherent mishmash of ideas designed by focus group" - Larry Elliot kicks off by highlighting the confusion the Tory line creates:

"On Tuesday night David Cameron warned that Labour's mismanagement of the public finances meant Britain might default on its debts. Yesterday he pledged that the Conservatives were now the party of the NHS because only they were prepared to deliver real increases in health spending in the next parliament."

Those two sentences show just how easy it is to attack the Tories' current position on health spending.  It would, I admit, be embarrassing for them to completely ditch it at this stage in the game.  But to avoid such attacks - and to account for the horrendous fiscal situation they may inherit after the next election - Cameron & Co. surely need to refine their message.  I thought George Osborne may have done just that a few days ago, but Cameron's subsequent comments suggest that the shadow chancellor's "work hard to protect" formulation hasn't entered the official Tory lexicon.

So far as the Tories are concerned, the saving grace may be that Labour can't exploit this weakness.  I seriously doubt the government would want to wade into a row where the Tories are committing to spend even more money than they are.  If they did, it would undermine their other attacks on "Tory cuts" for "frontline services".

But that doesn't mean the Tories should keep peddling the same message on the NHS, safe in the knowledge that Brown won't say a thing.  As Steve Richards points out in an excellent article for this week's New Statesman, the government and the Labour party won't be the only attack dogs looking to bite chunks out of the Tories during the next election campaign.  There's an entire blogoshpere out there to pounce on any slip-up, false promise or rhetorical inconsistency.  And many, like Larry Elliot, will be unforgiving.