'For all the talk in opposition of decontaminating the Tory brand, of making the party more tolerant and inclusive and less ‘nasty’, the key task facing Cameron when he took over in late 2005 was reassuring voters that the Conservatives could be trusted on welfare and public services. All the market research suggested that this was the sine qua non — a necessary if not a sufficient condition — of a return to office.
When the global financial crisis hit and Britain’s budget deficit ballooned, however, this task remained unfinished and work on it practically ceased. Gambling on the fact that they would be given brownie points for honesty, and believing that, as the most likely next government, they should start softening up the public for inevitable spending reductions, the Tories switched from reassurance to rhetoric about the age of austerity.
This, far more than an admittedly lacklustre campaign, was what did for them at the election: Labour may have been a busted flush but it was still able to scare enough voters about the Conservative’s intentions to deny them an overall majority.'
The financial crisis certainly saved Gordon Brown from outright disaster – better the devil you know. But it also reinvigorated Labour. Suddenly it had a Keynesian mission and it recast its strategy accordingly, producing a specious but coherent ideological dividing line on investment versus cuts. This refrain was maintained to the end, despite Alistair Darling’s best efforts to inculcate responsibility in Brown and Balls.
It was a successful strategy in that it discouraged the Tories from explaining their public service reforms, fearful that a message about value for money would be contorted into ideological cuts - hence the confusion over free schools, the vagueness of NHS reforms and the inscrutable Big Society. It was calculated reticence rather than caution, and it ran deep: the Tory campaign was dominated by the near total absence of economic debate. The Tories had flirted with austerity (briefly, during the 2009 conference); then they flinched. And the confidence and clarity of Cameron’s earlier period faded as the party ran from its shadow.