Peter Hoskin

The choice facing the Tories

The choice facing the Tories
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If you'd like a step-by-step preview of Labour's next election campaign, then do read Alastair Campbell's latest blog post.  All of Brown's attacks from PMQs are in there, and then some: "tax cuts for the rich"; a lack of "policy heavy lifting" on Cameron's part; the Tories "haven't really changed", etc. etc.  The spinmeister has been in closer contact with Downing Street recently, and it shows.  It's all gone a bit bar-brawling.

The Tories now face a choice between, broadly speaking, three different responses:

i) Ignore Campbell.  Even though James was right to highlight the differences between now and the Crewe & Nantwich byelection – which I wrongly skipped over in an earlier post – I still feel that this kind of relentless, negative campaigning on Labour's part could reflect badly upon them, particularly as they're the governing party.  Not only does it undermine Brown's claim that he concentrates on "politics not personality", but it also drags up the Ghosts of Smear Operations Past.  Besides, who said that the Tories' inheritance tax proposal is unpopular with the public?  As Danny Finkelstein suggested in a recent post, the opposite is almost certainly true.

ii) Launch a positive fightback. 
Although I agree that the Tories could do more to flesh out a positive policy agenda, their armoury isn't quite as bare as Campbell would have you believe.  In Michael Gove's school reforms, they have the what is the most transformative, most "progressive" policy set of the lot.  The Tories' welfare reform plans also form a soild, anti-poverty package.  They just need to start talking about them, in their day-to-day politics, as David Cameron did during his party conference speech.

If the Tories want to expand out from this, then they could think about proposing changes to the tax system which would benefit the least well off: raising thresholds, cutting rates, that kind of thing.  This could have the twin benefits of helping to alleviate poverty, while also smoothing out the high marginal rates which disincentivise extra work.  The great problem with this, of course, is cost.  But this is where the Tories might start thinking about some of their existing proposals – such as the IHT cut – and whether they'd rather "spend" the money in alternative ways.  As per i), though, I think the Tories would be unwise to drop or dilute the IHT cut purely in response to Brown's crude hectoring.

iii) Launch a negative fightback.  Of course, there's plenty of room for the Tories to attack Labour on the same grounds that Campbell is treading against them: Smeargate, the 10p tax fiasco, metrics which show rising inequality, and so on.  This is risky, though, as it has the same negative implications mentioned in i) above.  And the Tories would have to round out their own policy package before attacking, say, Brown's tax measures.

To my mind, ii) is the best approach for Team Cameron to take – but, then, it always has been.