UK: The Prime Minister's new clothes. (2 of 2)

UK: The Prime Minister's new clothes. (2 of 2) - But in many other areas of British political life it is almost as if the Thatcher Age had never been: Royal Commissions have resumed business; child benefit is unfrozen; the Butskellite consensus did not,

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

But in many other areas of British political life it is almost as if the Thatcher Age had never been: Royal Commissions have resumed business; child benefit is unfrozen; the Butskellite consensus did not, after all, die during the Thatcher years - it merely slept.

The Tories have returned to the bold and cynical pragmatism which has delivered so many years of Conservative government this century. Labour has watched while the Tories have rediscovered the old trick of stealing the Opposition's clothes - making selective raids on the most attractive and politically fashionable items in Neil Kinnock's policy wardrobe.

Cracking down on offshore tax havens and abolishing higher rate relief on mortgages were two of Labour's better ideas - popular with everybody but the rich, and a convenient way of raising a nice sum with which to help pay for its spending programme. Excellent wheezes - playing particularly well with those crucial skilled working-class voters in the West Midlands. So the Tories promptly stole both policies.

After labouring eight years to pull his party to the right, Neil Kinnock now looks on while the Tories take just six months to hurtle back to join him in the centre ground. Indeed, in some ways the Conservatives have now passed Kinnock and settled somewhere to his left.

Economic debates in the House of Commons these days produce a bizarre sort of role reversal between Labour and the Tories. It is Tory ministers who now make speeches about the virtues of spending record sums of public money on compassionate causes. It is the ever cautious John Smith and his Labour colleagues who make the noises about husbanding public resources and not spending more than the country can afford.

Funnily enough, it will be the traditional occupants of the centre ground - the Liberal Democrats - who are likely to be offering the most distinctively radical proposals at the next election. Constitutional and electoral reform are unlikely to dominate the election campaign - unless a hung Parliament looks probable - but at least the Liberal Democrats will be offering something distinctive.

In choosing between the Conservatives and Labour, the voters may be forgiven for thinking that the forthcoming contest is less a general election and more a game of spot the difference.

(Andrew Rawnsley is a columnist for The Guardian.)

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