There is one question and one question only that occurs after watching the Ask the Chancellors program — the typically quaintly British title for a debate between the various candidates for treasurer — and that is, has the Right lost its mind? Not merely the crazy tea-partiers in the US, or the rolling Tony Abbott freak show in Oz, but everywhere.
In Italy, Berlusconi managed to avoid a debacle in the Italian regional elections, but not for want of trying — his “people of liberty” party missed out on taking the Rome region because they failed to get their nomination forms in on time, the official in question claiming he nipped out for a sandwich. In France, Sarkozy jerks around like a bad Chaplin impersonator, suffering a debacle in his own regional elections because he’s done nothing while in power except pointless identity politics such as trying to ban the burqa.
But until now the UK Conservatives had kept their powder dryish. Having sniffed blood in the water after the 2008 GFC, they had stuck to a simple line — that they would preserve commitment to dominant middle-class obsessions with the environment, diversity, etc, while taking a firm old Etonian hand to the ballooning deficit.
That was when they were leading by a comfortable 12-20%, and it was just a question of keeping it steady until the election. But then Labour’s losing margin started to come in, and the Tories were faced with a truly awful situation — losing an election to Gordon Brown. At that point they began to panic.
A lot of that came out with an occasional swipe at immigrants, and then some fairly awful public reflections by Dave Cameron on his child who died at age six (followed by Gordon Brown’s matching awful reflection on his baby dying young), but until now the deficit stuff was steady as she goes.
That changed today when the Tories announced their latest policy — a £6 billion tax cut, targeted microscopically at marginal seats, announced in the face of a potential 13% deficit. How will it be possible to offer a tax cut, while also promising to slash a further £6 billion off the deficit.
Ah yes, efficiencies. A week after Labour’s Alistair Darling was ridiculed for claiming that the wayward Budget could be bought into line by savings on service delivery (apparently the NHS has much higher rates of illness absenteeism than elsewhere — where could that disease be coming from?), the Tories have taken the same tack.
Not only that but they have employed the same experts — Sir Peter Gershon, an adviser formerly to Brown, identified cuts the Tories could make. Except he didn’t — he suggested general margins of saving for every generic public service activity (staffing, overtime, online presence, etc), and even then he noted that 33% of these savings never eventuate in the first place. Apart from that …
Labour’s proposed efficiencies were bullsh-t, but the Tories’ are n-kedly contemptuous of the electorate’s intelligence. Some stooge was on the Today show on Radio Four this morning — a program that has made more than one minister resign with a deep sense of life failure — and even they went a little soft on him, because it was clear that there was nothing to defend.
The strategy, as one suspects, with Abbott’s addled parental leave proposal, was based on the belief that a gain in key marginals among key demographics was worth the embarrassment of having to defend a flatly contradictory policy as a general approach.
In Australia, the wonks didn’t count on the fact that it would add to the general sense that Tony Abbott is more deeply odd than hitherto perceived. Here, any attempt at credibility in the proposal was undermined by the fact that George Osborne was making it. Osborne, the short, snorty, Rik-from-the-Young-Ones performalike old Etonian couldn’t give a sense of gravitas to an announcement that his own leg had been sliced off, let alone a chancey Budget move.
He was in worse shape in the Ask the Chancellors debate, because the three-way contest had Vince Cable in the middle. The Lib-Dem would-be chancellor was not only the only major political figure to clear his throat a few years and mention, ahem, that the world economy was going to hell in a shopping basket, he has an adult air. A headmaster in fact. And with Cable and Alistair Darling ganging up on poor old George, he looked like a prefect getting a carpeting in the senior study.
The Tories move is producing the same confusion in their sympathetic commentariat, as is Abbott’s appalling performance in his own Right-wing glee club — who now resemble a group of temple virgins kissing a stone phallus until the head gets warm. But Tories everywhere are rudderless because they don’t believe in anything, except gaining power. When they get it back, they don’t know what to do with it.
Today’s three-way match would have done nothing other than persuade another tranche of voters that the country would be best off with the Lib-Dems in the mix, and making a hung parliament that little bit more likely.