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Tuesday, January 18, 2005
The wisdom behind the crises

Returning to the opposition budgets, the Conservative proposals capitalise on the £35 billion per annum of efficiency savings for which Gordon Brown's massive increases in superfluous bureaucrats apparently allow. The £35 billion will be divided up as follows: £23 billion will be retained as public expenditure but certainly spent better; public borrowing will fall by £8 billion; and taxes will be cut by £4 billion.

The great risk here is, as Paul Gray and Rupert Darwall have cleverly pointed out, the logical problem that it concedes so much of the case for big spending while prescribing less of the wonder-drug than Labour. To my mind, however, it is still a politically more sensible strategy than proposing outright expenditure cuts. The Conservatives' policies for patients' and parents' passports must be seen by voters as designed to meet the ends of improving the quality of health care and schools, not as a way of making room for a real end-goal of tax cuts.

Left-winger Matthew Turner asks on his blog why the proposal includes so much debt repayment.

The interesting question is why they decided to reduce government borrowing by £8bn, and thus only reduce taxes by £4bn, rather than making £12bn of tax cuts. £12bn of tax cuts sounds substantial, and indeed could be spun as £500 for every hard-working family in Britain. £4bn, obviously, can't. Labour could hardly call it irresponsible given the borrowing levels would have been the same for both parties.

My guess is that in the upside-down thinking of most media commentators, where tax cuts rather than spending have to be "afforded", a small tax cut appears more reasonable than a large one. But more than that, by promising to borrow less than Labour, the Conservatives can hope for the first time since 1992 to convincingly claim to be the party of economic competence, the prudent custodians of the public finances.

All this policy thinking does display a political wisdom that most people would consider quite out of character for the Conservative Party of today. And therein lies the Tory dilemma: the Conservatives certainly have difficulties with troublesome front- and backbenchers, and with what can justly be described as a tendency towards opportunism rather than the nerve and principle to make the case for what they hope to do if elected. But the party also has a set of policy proposals that are in general and in detail excellent: ambitious but realistic, clearly conservative but - not coincidentally - most in tune with the values and beliefs of the majority of the British people, as opinion polls make clear.

As The Telegraph noted yesterday, the question the Conservative Party must answer is how it can start appealing to those obviously inclined to agree with it, but paradoxically inclined to vote against it. Absolutely the answer is not to ditch those many policies which are far more popular than the party, while promoting the troublesome individuals who only ever receive coverage for disparaging those same policies.

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