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Alistair Thompson: It's the economy, not Compassionate Conservativism, that counts in these austere times

ATAlistair Thompson was the Conservative candidate for West Bromwich East at the last general election. He also runs Media Intelligence Partners with business partner Nick Wood, the former press secretary to Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith.

The political weather that David Cameron enjoyed when he was first elected in 2005 has changed beyond all recognition. Then he was the golden boy of politics, hugging hoodies and riding with huskies.

He cast his leadership as different, fresh. A blaze of positive publicity and a slick rebranding operation saw poll ratings climb and opened up a commanding lead over the Labour Party. Despite a few setbacks along the way, and set against the worst recession since the 1930s, Mr Cameron was only able to govern by forming a coalition in 2010's general election.

And throughout this time, one key plank of Mr Cameron's strategy with the electorate was to detoxify the Conservative brand - in a bid to expunge memories of that awful Theresa May description of the Party as the Nasty Party.

Social Action suddenly and rightly became an important part of the new Tory lexicon. Candidates talked about the work they were doing, mentoring, setting up job clubs, or just good old fashioned fund raising for community projects. Even more imaginative schemes were developed too. Andrea Leadsom's Oxpip and Charlie Elphicke's Pepod both attracted national media attention.

More was to follow - the commitment to raise international aid to 0.7 per cent of GDP, although controversial to some, was approved enthusiastically by most. In no small part, this was because polling indicated this was a vote winner with Lib Dem voters, and this mattered in a number of marginal seats.

Then, and most importantly, there was the adoption of Iain Duncan Smith's agenda. Suddenly talking about poverty, worklessness, addiction, educational failure and family breakdown was no longer the preserve of the Left. All of which could be badged under the collective heading: Compassionate Conservativism.

But as the 2008 banking crisis and recession carried on so the political weather changed. By 2010 Compassionate Conservativism already seemed like a concept born in the good years. Those round Mr Cameron knew this and as the hard times bit harder and deeper, the Prime Minister jettisoned the concept, retaining just one residual strand, an increase in the aid budget.

The Prime Minister even stopped making the moral and social case for serious welfare reform, allowing the policy to simple be traduced to the simplest of sound bites: "making work pay". The concept of Broken Britain and the social recession seemed to slide off the front pages, as did the enthusiasm for the radical and much needed overhaul of the welfare system.

Were it not for IDS, the Government would have simply engaged in arbitrary percentage cuts to employment benefits, dooming another generation to the same busted system. And it's not just compassionate Conservativism that the Prime Minister has flirted with before jilting. It seems almost in another lifetime that Mr Cameron talked about "sharing the proceeds of growth" and building the "Big Society".

But with the Party having been damaged by the gay marriage row, and damaging rifts having opened up between the majority and a small band of modernisers, now is the time to ditch anything unnecessary and to concentrate on the issue that will mean the difference between re-election and opposition - the economy.

Polls frequently identify the economy as the most important issue to voters. Immigration and Europe also feature prominently. All are issues that I would broadly describe as Conservative ones - and, if the Prime Minister and Chancellor have any chance of winning a majority at the next election, it is on these issues that they must focus.

Now there are those who argue that Government's can do more than one thing at a time - that it should press on with the compassionate conservativism agenda. I don't agree. This Government is bad at multi-tasking. Even popular policies start to dangerously unravel almost as soon as they are announced. Take the cut in child benefit. According to a poll commissioned by the Sun and published just a day after the announcement, the change was backed by 83 per cent of respondents.

But the next morning even normally loyalist MPs like the talented Penny Mordaunt appeared on TV raising her concerns. The iniquitous arrangements that saw those one-earner couples who just tipped into higher rate tax lose the benefit while two-earner couples being paid £40,000 each kept the benefit, led to weeks of discussions, damaging headlines and then a partial U-turn.

There are dozens of other examples. So Team Cameron is right to start to focus the Government on the economy. After all, this is what will determine the next next election. And what about compassionate conservatism? Since Mr Cameron doesn't really believe in the policy, he should leave it to those who do. And perhaps if he manages to win another election, then maybe he can dust off this policy, and use it to make himself look modern and trendy once more.


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