Conservative Diary

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Cameron's seven vulnerabilities: (2) The squeezed middle

By Tim Montgomerie

On Monday I identified reasons why Cameron could be hopeful about the 2015 General Election. Today I identify the second of seven vulnerabilities in the Cameron offering. Yesterday's vulnerability was Ken Clarke's prisons policy.

The new Labour leader has not enjoyed the best of starts. The overnight YouGov poll has the Tory lead widening since Ed Miliband beat his older brother. The Tories are on 43%, 7% ahead of Labour. The Tories haven't suffered - it seems - from last week's child benefit row.

Labour strategists clearly see middle class unhappiness as their route back to power:

  • Mr Miliband has talked about "the squeezed middle".
  • He has vowed to defend universal benefits, like child benefit.
  • They are ridiculing the big society call for more volunteering - saying it betrays an ignorance of the pressures already loaded upon hardworking families or 'the coping classes' as The Telegraph calls them.
  • One of Mr Miliband's motivations for the appointment of Alan Johnson was to have someone in the Treasury frontline who voters could identify with. It is notable that as part of the 'we understand your pain, the public schoolboys boys can't' strategy, backbench Labour MPs are increasingly targeting George Osborne's "millionaire" background.
  • Yesterday in the Commons the new Labour higher education spokesman, John Denham, said that teachers, engineers, middle managers and women would suffer most from higher interest charges on tuition fees because the poor would be protected and the rich would repay loans early. The Social Market Foundation appears to justify this reading of the Browne report.

The Daily Mail pursues exactly the same theme as Mr Denham today:

"Isn’t the bitter truth that, yet again, the hardest hit will be the aspirational classes on modest-to-middling incomes – teachers, nurses, middle-managers, engineers – the life-blood of our economy? As ever, high-earning City types won’t suffer – even under the Lib Dems’ plans for a surcharge on graduates who repay their loans early (itself a tax on prudence). The poorest will be protected, too. But for those caught in the middle, the debts they incur will hang over them for most of their lives, blighting their chances of a mortgage and their hopes of raising families of their own in comfort."

It's important to remember that Ed Miliband does not need to do particularly well to become Prime Minister. If he wins twenty to thirty extra Labour MPs he'll be in pole position to form a Westminster pact with the Liberal Democrats.

It's not easy for the Conservatives to repel this strategy. They have to make cuts that are going to hurt every class of voter. As Mike Denham has written, Ed Miliband's suggestion that the deficit can be repaid by "the rich" is economic nonsense.

The Tory leadership needs to get up each and every morning and think about how it addresses this potential weakness. Reforms should certainly be frontloaded. Talk of "reprofiling" the cuts is worrying. We don't need painful measures biting in 2013, 2014 and in the scheduled election year. George Osborne should not present the cuts strategy on his own but with Ken Clarke, Eric Pickles, Sayeeda Warsi and the under-used Chris Grayling. As Paul Goodman suggested last week, the child benefit reform should be presented as a temporary measure. Time limits could be added to many of the changes - so that tax rises, for example, are presented as temporary solutions to a debt problem, not as permanent increases in the size of the state. In other words we need to give taxpayers the hope that there's light at the end of the tunnel. We also need to recognise that non-economic policies will be crucial. Delivering on crime, immigration, welfare, school standards and cancer care will limit any leakage of middle class voters to the Labour.


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