Peter Hoskin

The biggest failure of the Tory opposition years

The biggest failure of the Tory opposition years
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Fantastic, thought-provoking stuff by Matthew Parris in the Times today, as he looks back on the past 12 years of Tory opposition and asks: "Just what did they achieve?"  His response is generally unfavourable: that, until more recently, the wilderness years have largely been wasted years.  And he highlights the Tories' inability to take on Labour over their wasteful spending and burgeoning deficit:

"But it was on the central domestic question of the era that the Tories’ nerve failed almost fatally. At first new Labour held to the tight spending plans that it inherited from John Major’s outgoing administration. Then the Government let go. The letting go was, in retrospect, fairly spectacular. But the Tories didn’t seem to notice, or, if they noticed, didn’t dare warn too loudly. A massive splurge on health, unaccompanied by serious reform, went through on the nod.

Public sector employment began to rise, and the share the State was taking of economic growth was not pared back, as it could quite painlessly have been. On all this — on both the details and the general direction — there was no clear or sustained blast on the trumpet from the Conservative Party. Research will no doubt turn up a basketful of critical press releases and parliamentary questions, but if the Tories had wanted to tell the New Britain of Tony Blair’s imagination where to get off the big-state, big-spending carousel, they could have.

The truth is that they had lost their nerve. I think the second economic recession under the Conservatives had badly rattled their ideological self-confidence."

Sure, you could argue that the Tories lost the last two elections on tax 'n' spend arguments which, broadly-speaking, sit within Thatcherite faith of which Parris approves.  And, sure, you can argue that the political tides had shifted so much that people weren't really listening to the Tories anyway, whatever they had to say.  But, like Parris, I still think the Tories could have gone about it better.

How so?  Well, to my mind, the major impediment during the Hague, IDS and Howard years was the absence of any meaningful reform agenda.  As I suggested a couple of weeks ago, the reform argument has always been the progressive argument - but you need to set out how you would actually deliver more for less before it can be deployed.  Hague et al. couldn't really manage that, beyond some loose talk about "cutting waste", so they missed the open goal that Brown's spending splurge had set up for them, and were left with arguments which were easily caricatured as either "cruel cuts" or "for the (rich) few".

Of course, this isn't to say Cameron's Tories have a fully-formed reform platform - their health policy could be even less reform-friendly than it was 5 years ago - but they do have Gove's Swedish schools agenda, which Osborne concentrated on in his recent "progressive politics" speech.  And the downturn has made it much, much easier for them to make the case against Brown's fiscal management.  Even so, Cameron recognises that his leadership has continued the series of Tory misjudgements on tax 'n' spend.  In his interview with the Economist this week, he laments that "We should have abandoned Labour’s spending plans sooner".  

For most Tory supporters, I guess it's a case of "all's well that ends well".  But you do have to wonder where we'd be now if the "investment vs cuts" orthodoxy had broken down sooner.

P.S. Over at ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie has point together an excellent 12-point list on the Tory opposition years.  Well worth a read.