Insights from the UK and beyond
A profound shift in party politics
David Cameron’s decision to ditch a major Conservative pledge to match Labour spending plans pound for pound was hailed by commentators as an important step in the politics of the recession, opening up a clear gulf between the two main parties’ economic policies but exposing the Tories to considerable risk.
Labour is expected to cut taxes, accelerate public spending and announce more borrowing in Monday’s pre-budget report. Now their supporters can revive the spectre of “Tory cuts” to funding for schools and hospitals which helped the Conservatives lose the last two elections.
For many of the newspapers, this is all part of a game being forced on the Tories by Gordon Brown’s rapid resurgence in the polls thanks to the economic crisis. A Mori poll this week found the once-mighty 26-point Conservative lead has slumped to just three points — equivalent to a Commons majority of four seats.
“In the extraordinary game of chess that is being played out against the backdrop of the recession, Cameron had no choice,” wrote The Independent. “But there are big risks for the Tories. Most non-partisan economists recognise the case for higher borrowing to pay for a fiscal stimulus. The Conservatives are virtually on their own in claiming spending cuts are an immediate answer.
“Spending cuts are also easier to announce than they are to implement, not least when the Conservatives have some ambitious spending programmes of their own. If Cameron comes up with any pain-free cuts, Brown will implement them first, as he did in the run-up to the last election.”
The Guardian said a curiously quiet period in British politics has come to a close with the announcement.
“Over the past few months the economy has been in wartime, beset by a banking crisis and a global recession, while politicians have been unsure how to react. Sure, Gordon Brown got his fill of summit-hopping. But most MPs have been little more than restive spectators of a crisis which will define economic policy for years to come and set the terms of the next election. That all ended yesterday.
“The political battle lines have now been drawn around one key question: who can best manage the recession?”
The Financial Times was in no doubt of the importance of Cameron’s policy tack. “He has taken one of the biggest gambles of his near three-year tenure … bucking the corporate and economic consensus to bet on a fundamental shift in voters’ attitudes in the next election,” it wrote.
“He believes he will be proved right in the long term as the recession deepens and voters increasingly blame Mr Brown for the state of the public finances rather than turn to him as the best hope for economic recovery.”
That may be a good move, the paper added, if the election comes in 2010 but could backfire if, as some commentators are suggesting, Brown decides to go to the country before things get too bad.
Several papers applauded Cameron for opening up a clear choice for voters in how deal with the coming hard times.
“On the big issue of the day, the route out of recession, there is now a genuine choice,” The Times said, while the Daily Mail declared: “With one bold decision, Mr cameron set himself free to offer a meaningful alternative of real substance.”
The Daily Mirror spoke of thick red lines now having been trawn between the two parties and warned the Conservatives were missing the public mood.
“Every nurse, care worker, soldier and their families now has a vested interest in voting Labour,” it wrote.
But The Sun applauded Cameron’s move. “Labour seems ready to gamble the entire economy on a “cut now, pay tomorrow” burst of tax reductions financed by ever-higher borrowing,” it said. “That is the economics of the madhouse.”
“At last the Tories seem to be finding their voice. They have decided to put hard-working taxpayers first — and dump their daft promise to match Labour’s bloated spending.”