“We took heat on hot pies. People have Laughed Out Loud during Leveson. And we mislaid the moral compass on tax evasion. Let’s win back those hard-working families with a principled attack on benefits culture… avoid any actual policies, or the Lib Dems will want to get involved.”
Perhaps that wasn’t quite the advice put to the PM by his advisers in recent weeks, but given his new policy direction, it’s logical to consider that it was something along those lines.
As Westminster braces for a slugging match on Lords reform, Cameron’s tough talk on housing benefit for the under 25s says, ‘These are the real issues I’d tackle with a Tory majority.’ According to Ipsos Mori, seven in 10 agree that politicians should do more to reduce the benefits bill. So Cameron can sidestep Lib Dem navel gazing, shore up support from the right of his party and get some popular approval into the bargain.
So far, so good.
But that doesn’t amount to good strategy – just sharp tactics. Cameron’s long-term project has been to detoxify the Tory brand; to lose the ‘Nasty Party’ name tag and compete on the centre ground where elections are won. People who want to know what Cameron stands for won’t feel enlightened by this – they’ll feel confused. It sounds inconsistent, and doesn’t match the long-term narrative.
Attitudes on benefit always harden during recession. These tactics could go the distance if the economy is still flatlining come 2015. But that’s an unlikely precursor to a Conservative majority in any case. Perhaps the thinking is that an inconsistent brand is better than no brand at all. And the lack of vision from Labour – who are desperate not to side with idle scroungers on this one – may be enough to see Cameron through.
Jon Bennett is a director at public relations and public affairs consultancy Linstock Communications