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Should we worry about the Liberal Democrats' attempts to retoxify the Tory brand?

By Tim Montgomerie
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What are we to make of the constant attacks on the Conservative Party from our Coalition "partners"? I noted some of them yesterday. Tory MP Priti Patel said Chris Huhne's latest attacks were "misjudged", "insulting" and "disparaging". More worrying for Mr Huhne will be criticism from Shirley Williams. The senior Liberal Democrat peer told Radio 4 that Mr Huhne's attacks were "not helpful at all". “We can’t expect an idealistic, lovely friendship," she said, "but one doesn’t need to bash the other side with all the abuse you can find.” Whatever Baroness Williams thinks, the attacks on the Tories certainly please many Liberal Democrats. Mr Huhne got a standing ovation on the fringe for saying that Tory tax cuts would wreck the economy.

Should Conservatives worry about these criticisms?

The first thing I'd say is that these attacks say more about the Liberal Democrats than the Conservatives. The notion that the Lib Dems are Britain's angelic party is harder and harder for them to sustain the longer they are in full public view. Every local Tory and Labour activist notes that Liberal Democrats are dirty campaigners and in the AV campaign we saw them throw smear after smear when they were losing. For most people in the country the Liberal Democrats are the politicians who promised to restore trust in politics and then performed a screeching U-turn over tuition fees. Only 16% of voters now believe the Liberal Democrats keep their word. They are not exactly on the highest of moral grounds. And as for nice? Last night they were reportedly singing 'tony blair can f**k off + die' to the tune of American Pie. Lovely people.

Not all Liberal Democrats are the same. The Lib Dems making the most attacks are the ones with leadership ambitions. Danny Alexander, Jeremy Browne, David Laws and the social democratic Steve Webb aren't on the attack. They're getting on with making this Coalition succeed. Tory ministers I speak to say they are in coalition with two Liberal Democratic parties. Working with the Orange tendency is a dream and working with the other faction can be very fustrating and occasionally unpleasant.

Liberal Democrats are attacking the Tory weak spot. The great project of David Cameron has been to decontaminate the Tory brand - to show that we are a party that cares about the NHS, the poor, the unemployed and the natural environment. Voters know we are usually an efficient party but they want to know that we're also decent people and that we understand their lives. At the moment many are suspicious of us. Only 30% think we are “for ordinary people, not the rich”. Liberal Democrats with their talk of us wanting to do the 21st century equivalent of sending children up chimneys are trying to retoxify the Tory brand. At the very least - in the words of Shirley Williams - it's not helpful.

We need to redouble our commitment to compassionate conservatism. We should abolish the 50p tax rate for the reasons set out by Andrew Bridgen today but do we give the impression, as a party, that we are as worried about disincentive structures for the lowest paid? With IDS' Universal Credit we are certainly doing more to address the problem than Labour ever did. Conservatives need to be tough on fat cat pay as well as welfare cheats. Jesse Norman's piece in today's Times (£) about boardroom pay shows the way. If the Conservative Party doesn't sensibly address injustices like the over taxation of income relative to land, then a party motivated by envy will do so and will do so dangerously. We need to be a party that has a compassionate message for two sets of people: (1) the very poor and very broken, at home and overseas, and (2) the hardworking and low-paid. Sometimes there are tensions between these two objectives with, for example, those struggling to make ends meet resenting the overseas aid budget. Tomorrow I'll be launching the manifesto and Part I is about this topic.


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