Cameron tries to channel Reagan – and returns to auction politics

As the UK election looms, the language of fiscal rectitude has been scrapped

British prime minister and Conservative Party leader David Cameron and his wife Samantha have a cup of tea with a young couple in their home in Swindon. Cameron yesterday outlined his party’s manifesto in advance of the general election on May 7th

British prime minister and Conservative Party leader David Cameron and his wife Samantha have a cup of tea with a young couple in their home in Swindon. Cameron yesterday outlined his party’s manifesto in advance of the general election on May 7th

 

Ronald Reagan oozed optimism like no other politician, with talk of the United States as “the shining city on the hill”; one that had stood “strong and true”, casting her glow “no matter what storm”.

David Cameron sought to capture some of Reagan’s magic yesterday as he outlined his party’s election manifesto in Swindon. However, he lacked Reagan’s lyricism, as he praised Britain’s “long life as an exemplary country”; that “bright light in the North Sea that has exceeded expectations decade after decade, century after century”.

However, should Cameron’s speech be remembered, it will be as the “good life” speech – a phrase mentioned 10 times, as he sought to convince voters that brighter days lay ahead.

Optimism is needed. Nearly two weeks into the campaign, the Tories are showing signs of concern. Economic figures have rarely been better: inflation at zero, job numbers never higher, and interest rates low.

Yet, the opinion polls have oscillated a point or two up, or a point or two down. The moment of “crossover” where the Conservatives steam ahead to victory – long heralded by Australian strategist Lynton Crosbie – has yet to happen.

Cameron, who is unloved by the public, nevertheless leads in the leadership stakes over Labour’s Ed Miliband, though the latter may have cut through some of the negativity surrounding him with a more sustained exposure.

In a bid to take command of the agenda, Cameron has dug deep into the Conservatives’ playbook, drawing on Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 offer to council tenants to buy their homes with a discount.

Right-to-buy scheme

The discount, however, will not be financed by Whitehall. Instead, councils will be expected to sell older council stock in often settled up-and-coming areas once those properties become vacant when existing tenants die or leave.

Under the existing rules, housing association tenants can buy their homes through the right-to-buy scheme – but they receive much lower discounts than Cameron is now offering, so few actually do.

The housing association model was created in Birmingham nearly 150 years ago by chocolate-maker George Cadbury, but the Cadbury-created Bournville Trust sees little of Cameron’s “big society” in the housing sale.

Its head, Peter Roach, said that while he understood people’s desire to own their own homes: “It is the last thing we need, following 40 years of successive governments’ failure to build the homes this country needs.”

Giving “huge amounts of taxpayers’ money” to pay for discounts “for people already enjoying the comfort of good quality affordable homes” while waiting lists soar “is unfair and shameful”, he told the Birmingham Mail.

Labour, too, pointed to flaws. English councils last year managed to sell just 479 houses that had come back into their hands, raising £100 million – a fraction of what was required.

The right-to-buy idea was at the core of Cameron’s relentlessly positive message – a recognition that too much of what the Tories’ offered up to now was bleak.

The prime minister promised that those working less than 30 hours for the minimum wage would not be taxed; that parents would qualify for 30 hours of free childcare for four- and five-year-olds; that the NHS would get £8 billion; and that voters would get an EU referendum.

For five years, a majority has had more faith in the Conservatives than in Labour to run the economy, believing that action had to be taken to deal with the deficit and the national debt.

However, austerity fatigue has set in. In the budget, Chancellor George Osborne erred in seeming to make spending cuts a matter of ideology, not a much-disliked necessity.

The party’s “too hard by half” image has been compounded by a series of other blunders, including defence secretary Michael Fallon’s accusation that Ed Miliband had stabbed his brother in the back in the party leadership race, which backfired even among partisan Tories.

The danger this image poses to the party explains much of Cameron’s Swindon rhetoric, as he appealed to those whose “patriotism may be quiet but whose love for this country is deep and great. And I share it. I am above all a patriot. I love my country with all my heart. ”

He pleaded with voters for five more years “to finish the job”, to “turn the good news in our economy into a good life for you and your family”.

Campaign posters

The rest offered hope: jobs; affordable homes, opportunity for all. Cameron may have mangled the language of Reagan in Swindon, but it is “the sunlit uplands” of Churchill that he believes that he needs now.

By doing so, he has brought the Conservatives back to where elections are usually fought: auction politics. The language of fiscal rectitude has, for now, been consigned to the bin.

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