The Coalition's main policy is right - and it's time to get behind it
By Paul Goodman
James Arbuthnot, the Conservative Defence Select Committee Chairman, warned earlier this morning on Today that the speed of the defence review is worrying, and that decisions are money-driven and not defence driven. Arbuthnot is a sonorously imposing figure - a former Defence Minister and Chief Whip, recently tipped for Defence Secretary himself and once singled out by John Major as a future Party leader. His warnings will be taken seriously.
They continue a week in which the waters that the Government's negotiating are turning very choppy. Brendan Barber, the TUC General Secretary, says we have a "demolition Government, not a Coalition Government". (This morning, the Daily Telegraph notes that full-time public sector staff earned an average of £74 a week more than those in the private sector.) BBC Unions are demonstrating their political neutrality by threatening to time their coming strike during David Cameron's Party Conference speech.
The Police Superintendents Association has warned of coming "disaffection, social and industrial tension". Little wonder that YouGov's daily tracker poll finds Labour only one per cent behind the Conservatives - and that's without the former having a leader in place. How big will their poll lead lead stretch once they do? One Liberal Democrat Cabinet Minister has reportedly warned that the Party's ratings could fall to five per cent, and the Conservatives' to 25 per cent.
During the darkest political period for the Thatcher Government during the early eighties, the Party ran at very roughly that level - third behind both Labour and the newly-formed SDP/Liberal alliance. But although the Government was divided between "wets" and "dries", Margaret Thatcher had a clear and consistent narrative about the Government's purpose - to reverse Britain's decline. Tim, The Spectator's James Forsyth, and I have written here, here and here of how one is presently lacking.
Conservatives must highlight the Coalition's problems when necessary, though they should also (as we're trying to do this week on the narrative question) have solutions to offer. But it's also essential to stand back from the daily dramas of the 24 hour news cycle, and try to look at the big picture. The Government's main purpose is to pay off Labour's deficit - thereby helping to create the conditions for growth, jobs and prosperity.
It's trying to carry out this aim in the face of Labour hostility and public scepticism. But it can't be said often enough that this objective is right and the alternatives disastrous. George Osborne explained why in a bold Commons performance on Monday (from which his colleagues could learn), explaining how the Coalition's determination to tackle the deficit has helped cut market interest rates while they've stayed flat or risen in other deficit-troubled countries. As he pointed out -
"£61 billion [of the spending scaleback]...will come from reductions to departmental expenditure plans. It is worth reminding the House that £44 billion of that £61 billion was assumed in the figures left to us by the previous Government. In other words, for all the synthetic noise and fury that we hear, £3 of every £4 that we are having to cut were cuts that the Opposition were planning to make. Unfortunately, not a single one of those pounds was allocated to a specific programme."
On the most important plank of Government policy, the Coalition is right and Labour is wrong (not to mention hypocritical). David Cameron will have the chance to make the point later today at Prime Minister's Questions, and again and again during the months to come. As he does so, his Party should get behind him. His venture's as right and necessary as Margaret Thatcher's was some 30 years ago.