The Chancellor and Prime Minister should resurrect their charitable sides and repair the Budget’s damageby Peter Kellner / March 24, 2016 / Leave a comment
George Osborne has got away with it for now; but for how long? The terrible events in Brussels have diverted attention from the row over benefits for disabled people; and Jeremy Corbyn’s ineffective performances in the House of Commons on Monday and Wednesday mean that Labour has missed its opportunity to benefit from the government’s discomfort.
But the issue will not die. It is bound to resurface. And by “issue” I mean not just the specific matter of the latest benefit cuts: these have been abandoned, and are unlikely to resurface before the next election. Rather, I mean something deeper. The real danger to the Tories is their apparent inability to shed their image of a party of the toffs, for the toffs, run by the toffs.
Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation from the position of Secretary for Work and Pensions damaged the Chancellor not so much because of the specifics of his Budget policies and numbers, but because IDS—a right-wing former Tory leader, and subsequently cabinet minister for six years—mocked the government’s claim that “we are all in it together.” Of course David Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Press Association Images responded on Monday by asserting his credentials as a one-nation Conservative; and of course Osborne, on Tuesday, spoke of his plans to spend ever more on disability benefits.
But neither the Prime Minister nor his Chancellor spoke as if their hearts were in it. Cameron’s tone was patrician, while Osborne’s was that of a sneering clever-clogs. You sensed (at any rate, I sensed) that if a disabled constituent in needing more help (say, because they had been hit by the bedroom tax) came to one of their local MP surgeries, they would respond not with empathy and a determination to help, but with a lecture on fiscal rectitude, a sermon about “tough choices” and a wish to fob off the struggling constituent as fast as possible with the smallest and vaguest commitment consistent with basic politeness. This may be unfair. For all I know, both Cameron and Osborne might have outstanding records helping their disabled constituents in Witney and Tatton. But that is not the impression either man has given this week.
To some extent this has always been a problem for the Tories. For some decades after the Second World War they overcame it because many of their leading figures had served in one or both world wars. For example, Willie Whitelaw was plainly a well-off country gentleman. But he had displayed exceptional bravery in Normandy and had been awarded a Military Cross. When he presented himself as a one-nation Tory, he carried conviction.
John Major did too, for a different reason—as someone who had grown up in Brixton, where his infant mouth never came anywhere near a silver spoon. His decency had personal roots as well as social conviction.
Cameron and Osborne can claim neither childhood struggles nor military experience in aid of their boast to be one-nation, all-in-it-together politicians. Which makes it all the more important that they both talk the talk and walk the walk. Currently they do neither. Their talk lacks empathy, and their walk seems never to have taken them anywhere near the lives of disabled people struggling to make ends meet.
Andrew Mitchell’s example is one to copy. Before 2010 he spent considerable time in Africa, looking at how British aid could help poor countries deliver stronger, healthier and fairer societies. As International Development Secretary he commanded respect, because, here and in Africa, he demonstrated a real passion for delivering effective help to people who needed it most.
This Easter, Cameron and Osborne would do well to spend the weekend with one of the charities working with disabled people, engaging on the front line with both the helpers and the recipients. And not just a brief half-hour visit, but a full day or, better still, the whole weekend.
Of course, they may take the view that the Tories will never capture the conscience vote, and that as long as they are viewed as competent, and manage to keep taxes down and the lives of middle England reasonably comfortable, then they can keep on winning elections, however much they dump on the less well-off. But is that the reputation they seek? And, in more practical terms, one day Labour (or some other progressive force) will mount an effective challenge. Then they may rue their refusal to rid themselves of their image as heartless bean-counters.