In a piece for the Daily Telegraph tomorrow, I look into Cameron’s future a little bit. He is going to be hated, because no one can cut to the extent he has to and be liked. His first term will be a war with the unions, who by then may have taken over the Labour Party entirely. It seems impolite to say so, but he is going to be a hatchet man. Not out of choice, but because he has to – at a minimum – carry out the cuts of Budget 2009. And if he wants to assuage the credit rating agencies, who will be the true masters of Britain, he’ll have to cut still further. It doesn’t matter if his heart isn't in it; it doesn’t matter if he and Steve Hilton would rather be sharing the proceeds of growth. Events have overtaken them. Their options narrow by the month. The hatchet is waiting, behind the door of No10, and – like it or not - Mr Cameron will be judged by how effectively he wields it.
I’ll leave CoffeeHousers with a parting thought. Cameron knows that these cuts are ahead of him, knows he has a Thatcher-style mission with about a quarter of the preparatory time that Thatcher had. (Sure, he’s been leader since Dec 2005, but the scale of fiscal surgery only became clear over the last few months). So what’s his strategy? Does he shut up about it, and not let talk about Tory cuts enter the election narrative? You can see the temptation: no-one wants to talk about how they’re going to get into office and impose the sharpest education and home office cuts in postwar history. And you can bet that Brown will keep quiet about the cuts which Budget 2009 committed him to, if he wins.
But if Cameron does keep quiet now, and springs the cuts agenda on the public after the election, it could look like a discretionary move that the Tories embarked on for fun. In my view, he needs to make three things clear:
1) That these are Brown’s cuts, needed to clear up the mess that Brown made. The Tories aren’t doing this for a jaunt.
2) The alternative to making the cuts will be even worse – i.e. national bankruptcy, losing the AAA rating, debt for our children, IMF bailout, the works. The threat is abstract, but needs to be made real.
Cameron could start talking now about the cuts, so the public aren't surprised when the hatchet comes down in the first Tory budget. Or he could keep quiet, then take a "Oh my God, you’ll never guess what we found in Brown’s Budget - oh, we have to cut - let’s unleash Hammond" mock-surprise approach. So what should his strategy be? Cameron does, of course, read Coffee House, and this will be one of the trickiest questions he faces. So, suggestions please.
UPDATE: I should have been a little more specific in the question. It's not so much how Cameron cuts, but how he manages to convey to the public that these are Brown's cuts, made necessary by Brown's failings. Defining your opponent's past record is a crucial task for a new government, and Brown powerfully caricatured the Major years as the Long Black Wednesday. So Cameron needs to say: "Brown has taken us to the brink of collapse, these cuts are to save us." How does he best get this message across, and should he start now, during the campaign or after the election?