George Bolton looks at how David Cameron’s PR-managed answers could be harming his credibility in the long run
Two weeks ago in Prime Minister’s Questions, a clear clash between the politics of the new and old occurred. Jeremy Corbyn’s trademark straight-talking, honest politics were on clear display as he repeatedly asked the prime minister if three million people would be worse off after the impending cuts to tax credits—even with the chancellor succumbing to the overwhelming pressure to “soften the blow.” In the long-term, however, George Osborne’s future prospects may well benefit from the fact that the House of Lords have hindered the progress of his harsh reforms. As for Corbyn, he now has the prime minister on the back foot. His confident and passionate stubbornness of the issue could win some Conservative voters back if they feel betrayed by these hidden cuts.
David Cameron’s sleek, Blair-esque knack for dodging difficult questions proved extremely effective during the general election campaign, but the public’s patience is wearing thin. At no point was this clearer than recently on Question Time, when an enraged, Tory-voting mother expressed her feelings of disgust and betrayal. Before the general election, not even Jeremy Paxman could destabilise the electorate’s evident confidence in Cameron, even when food banks were the subject matter. Now, the tide is changing. The vague and slippery technique that both Blair and Cameron mastered (and Miliband not so much) is rapidly becoming a political burden. Like with all tricks, after a while, the audience is beginning to catch on.
This is manifesting itself in two main ways. First of all in Prime Minister’s Questions, in which the juxtaposition between Cameron and Corbyn’s speaking style was blindingly obvious. Replying to the Leader of the Opposition’s question: “Will you confirm right now the tax credit cuts will not make anyone worse off in April next year?” Cameron could only reply “What we want is for people to be better off because we are cutting their taxes and increasing their pay.” This obvious inability, or unwillingness, to honestly answer an incredibly important question surely could erode the reputation of the prime minister.
During the bewildering election campaign, this sidestepping of questions comes in handy because in this period, it is the words that matter most. When it comes to the incomes of the poorest working people in the country, however, no amount of spin can save the Government. This is something that even Tory backbenchers recognise, such as Heidi Allen, MP for South Cambridgeshire, who vigilantly argued: “As these proposals stand, too many people will be adversely affected.” Allen’s defiance showed uncharacteristic cracks appearing around the Conservative Party’s economic policy.
We only have to look back to Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax disaster to remind ourselves of what can happen if an overconfident prime minister is blinded by a grand vision and overlooks both backbenchers and public opinion. If these reforms did go ahead in their original form they could have very well caused serious damage to Cameron and Osborne’s credibility. Of course, Cameron is far more conscientious than the Iron Lady, and is no doubt quietly grateful for the House of Lords veto in light of the recent political outcry.
These tax credit reforms are a major focal point for Cameron’s second term. If he wants to prove to the electorate that his party really is that of the “working people,” cutting the income of three million families by an average of £550 per year is, to put it lightly, a step in the wrong direction.
Trust is also a major issue here; a key mistake of Blair’s government was to promise to not raise income tax, and then proceed to cut marriage tax credits and raise VAT. This quickly turned Blair’s charm from an appeal into a vice. The same could feasibly happen to Cameron. These sneaky and deceptive tactics that have become the norm in recent politics have and will continue to erode the public’s trust in political parties.
To claim that tax credits is a hurdle for Cameron and Osborne however, is far from doubting the ability of the dynamic duo to recover from such a setback. As Thatcher proved in her first term, it is possible to infuriate the electorate, reverse unpopular policies and restore popularity all within four years. Similarly, to applaud Corbyn’s effectiveness in Prime Minister’s Questions is far from arguing that he could go on to win the next general election. Corbyn has proved himself an effective speaker with strong principles—but this is not enough on its own. These qualities may merely be, as many have claimed, those of a “protest politician.” It will prove to be the make or break of Corbyn’s Labour whether or not he will be able to exploit the current wobbles of the government.