The ‘Social’ in Social Housing

August 4, 2010 at 9:52 pm | Posted in Conservative Party, David Cameron, Social Policy | 6 Comments

There are plenty of reasons why people who could afford to leave social housing opt not to do so.

The most obvious, of course, is cost; even if you did have the resources to find yourself private accommodation, you might prefer living in social housing if it leaves you with a little extra money for food, clothes, transport, a night out and the odd holiday.

The second is the security that social housing can offer. Not every private landlord is as scrupulous as a local housing association, and the further down the price scale you go, the less security you’re likely to have. Social housing can offer considerably more peace of mind for tenants.

Another reason is community. People might just prefer the part of the world they’re staying in: they’re on good terms with the neighbours; their parents live up the road; their kids go to the local school; they’re used to seeing and socialising with the same faces; they belong. Why would they want to leave those social networks – that familiarity – behind?

Although the first two reasons will be most commonly cited by those concerned about David Cameron’s social housing announcement, I think the third reason is potentially the most significant.

Functionalist sociologists – more often linked with the political right than the left – often talk about a thing called social solidarity. They believe that social harmony is best achieved by members of a community all sharing similar norms, values, lifestyles, histories and traditions. They’re the things that bind us together, that give us common ground and foster neighbourliness and a public spirit.

Now, that theory might have holes in it, but a glance at our nation’s past suggests there’s at least some truth there. When you look at our post-war history, many episodes of social unrest on the British mainland have had high population turnover as a contributing factor. Long-time residents saw their communities changing before their eyes and didn’t who their neighbours were; newcomers would be sent to areas they didn’t know, alongside people whose culture and language they didn’t always share.

Whilst most communities were (and still are) open-minded enough to adapt the changes around them (no thanks to you know who), those areas with acute social exclusion and economic inactivity would regard their new neighbours as competitors for resources that were already – are already – in short supply. Even then, bonds were (and still are) built over time: the ‘newcomers’ stick around, form relationships and embrace the community around them; the long-time residents begin to work and socialise and relate to the people they might once have treated with mistrust. Solidarity grows.

None of this is meant to diminish the problems afflicting some of Britain’s housing estates; rather, it’s meant suggest that the introduction of arbitrary fixed-term leases could make matters worse. If we know that a high turnover of population can erode the bonds which hold communities together, it is not far-fetched to conclude that a policy which leads to residents constantly moving on could erode those bonds further. If that happens, we should expect greater mistrust, dysfunction and social unrest in deprived communities. Like they need that right now.

I really don’t want to be one of those people who brings out the ‘Big Society’ as a ‘gotcha’ to thrash the coalition with each time they announce questionable policy. But a ‘Big Society’ is no substitute for an understanding of how society actually works.

David Cameron famously admitted that “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state”. He was right on both counts. But if his coalition continues to act as if State and Society are two entirely separate entities, he will never ‘unbreak’ the Britain he inherited.

Snow, Society and Conservatism

January 9, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, David Cameron | 7 Comments

383564341 7acb80c0fbI know there’s a recession, freezing temperatures, and we’re at the start of what looks to be an unpleasant election campaign, but there are still times when you can smile and think “y’know what, we’re a bloody brilliant little country, aren’t we?”

As much as the bad weather has caused everything from irritation to havoc, there’s still much to enjoy in reading about the ways people coped, and plenty to admire in the many acts of kindness and heroism.

People like the employees from a building company who downed tools to help a charity deliver meals to the vulnerable, or the residents of a West Sussex village whose community spirit & soup kitchen helped them survive a power failure. People like this Doncaster park ranger who battled through five hours of thick snow to rescue two trapped women, or the chap who drives his 20 year old tractor through Gloucestershire, clearing snow. People like Barry and Sid, who drove through 30 miles of snow saving trapped motorists, or folks in the Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade, who helped dig out an ambulance which had got stuck. People like the public sector workers who went above and beyond the call of duty, the passing driver who saved an injured cyclist’s life or the two teenagers who risked their own lives trying to save men from drowning.

These stories are inspiring & heart-warming, but they are also so frequent as to seem mundane. These people are ordinary and they are everywhere.

I mention this because snow is, for some reason, a political issue. On his blog, Dan Hannan described how he’d been ‘public spirited’ enough to clear snow for his neighbours, and wondered:

If everyone were responsible for his own patch of pavement, the disruption caused by snow would be much diminished. Is our reliance on state intervention symptomatic of the sapping effects of big government?

Hannan’s argument here is that ‘big government’ discourages us from exhibiting the same public spirited behaviour as himself. Because there is a big, unweildy state delivering public services, we choose not to show kindness or consideration for others because we expect the government to do everything for us.

It’s a view which is also shared by the Leader of the Opposition. Here’s what David Cameron said when he gave his Hugo Young Lecture:

But as the state continued to expand, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, their families and their neighbours. Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state. The result is that today, the character of our society – and indeed the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing.

There is less expectation to take responsibility, to work, to stand by the mother of your child, to achieve, to engage with your local community, to keep your neighbourhood clean, to respect other people and their property, to use your own discretion and judgement.

What Cameron is essentially arguing is that the state is a social evil, for it subverts all our better instincts. If this were true, then these examples of kindness and heroism would be outliers; unrepresentatuve of the country as a whole and made all the more extraordinary in light of the state’s discouragement of public-minded behaviour. According to this speech, to show human kindness, generosity and imagination is to go against the grain.

Am I the only one who thinks this an awfully pessimistic view of the country David Cameron wants to govern? There are many different arguments for slashing spending or reducing the size of the state, but to actually go to the country and say something which is just a more polite form of “we need a new government because Labour’s turned you into a bunch of bastards”, seems a little over the top.

This pessimism is something Alex Massie’s noted in the past. Cameron started out by promising to ‘let sunshine win the day’, but the closer he’s got to Downing Street, the more dystopic his depictions. As Massie puts it: “Frankly, if you were to take Tory rhetoric at face value the only sensible course, for those with the means to take it, would be emigration.”

This brings into question Cameron’s view of British life and the character or its people. Is he simply fulfilling the requirement of any opposition leader to note how terrible everything is, or does he really believe it? Were he ever in a position to answer that question honestly, it’d reveal much about his values, and about his perceptions of the people whose state he wants to govern.

Picture via Lawrence OP

Dave’s dilemma

January 22, 2009 at 12:55 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, David Cameron | Leave a comment
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Considering all the prolonged speculation that he was due to return to the shadow cabinet, it’s a bit weird that Kenneth Clarke’s remarks at a conference in Nottingham have only just received wide circulation. Still, his thoughts on how a future Conservative government might balance its fetish for both Atlanticism and Euroscepticism make for an interesting read:

Clarke also spoke of his party’s relationship with the new President of the US, Barack Obama. Calling uncritical support for Bush-Blair interventionism “a disaster”, he said: “A lot will depend on relations with Europe, because Obama doesn’t want his strongest European ally led by a right wing nationalist, he wants them to be a key player inside Europe and he’ll start looking at whoever is in Germany or France if we start being isolationist.”

He added: “I think the need to be working with Obama will influence my party on Europe. It is still firmly Eurosceptic but it’s now moderate, harmless Euroscepticism. It’s a bit silly sometimes like which group do you join in the European parliament but full blooded stuff like renegotiating the treaty of accession is as dead as a dodo. We’ve got lots of ideas on European policy on energy, security, relations with Russia, climate change, all that kind of thing [but] somebody like me is far more relaxed about all that [and if the Tories] get into office the pressure of the American alliance will make them more European.”

It’s worth remembering that Clarke was one of the few Tories to vote against the Iraq war, which gives his criticisms of Blair’s ‘disastrous’ foreign policy more weight than had it been some Johnny-come-lately. He also described a more ‘enlightened’ approach to international security than any of his competitors for the Tory leadership and did so several years before Labour’s current boy king. If the Tories do win the next election, I’d be more at ease with Clarke as Foreign Secretary than seeing him wreak havoc in any other cabinet position – which is probably why it’ll never happen.

Whilst there’s scant evidence to back him up, Clarke’s prediction for how US-UK-EU relations might fare in an age of both Obama and David Cameron is at least plausible. As I’ve noted before, Obama will probably seek to work with Britain as a part of the European community, not as some obstinate little island which can’t get on with its neighbours but has a creepy crush on American power. If Cameron can acknowledge and adapt to this new reality, then Britain can retain some measure of influence in international affairs. Problem is, to do so will inevitably upset his eurosceptic supporters, for whom he withdrew his MEP’s from Europe’s centre-right coalition, played hardball on the EU referendum and promised to pull out of the EU social chapter.

What it boils down to is a question of leadership. Whilst it’s true that Cameron has gone against his party’s worst instincts in order to decontaminate a desperate and disillusioned brand, he’s also given us several examples of reversing policies and caving in to outside pressure. His U-turn on grammar schools, his surrender to colleagues who wanted to work a second job, and his reversal of an earlier pledge not to cut taxes all give the impression that this is a man who’s not yet able to give firm leadership in the face of opposition.

To that end, we can’t yet know whether a Cameron government will reluctantly engage with Europe in order to resolve global problems, or whether he’ll – at the slightest hint of back bench rancour – simply retreat into the Tories’ isolationist comfort zone. It will all depend on whether he has the guts.

Cameron gets ‘smart’

January 17, 2009 at 12:11 pm | Posted in British Politics, Climate Change, Conservative Party, David Cameron | 2 Comments

It appears we can no longer doubt David Cameron’s commitment to a low carbon future. With his history of attention-grabbing gimmicks – whether cycling to work, erecting a windmill above his home or galavanting across the Arctic – many of us assumed the Tory leader was only interested in the PR opportunities ‘going green’ provided, and was rather less concerned with making the tough choices needed to meet future challenges.

But a day after bashing the government for its cavalier expansion of Heathrow, Mr Cameron has proposed arguably the best policy of his leadership – a genuine infrastructure project which could help the economy, cut our energy bills and reduce the country’s carbon emissions.

Cameron has committed the Conservatives to a £1bn pound investment in the country’s electricity network, and has promised a ‘smart grid‘ which will finally bring the way we produce, consume and pay for energy into the 21st century. So what is a ‘smart grid’, and why is the idea so good that I’m breaking the habit of a lifetime to praise official Conservative Party policy?

First, some background. The bulk of Britain’s electricity network dates back to the post-war era. In those days, because fuel was cheap and in abundant supply, and because concepts like climate change & energy efficiency were unheard of, it suited us to have a centralised system consisting of a small number of massive power stations guzzling coal and pumping the proceeds across the country – sometimes to towns and villages hundreds of miles away.

But in an age where we need to be more conservative with our use of energy, the current system just isn’t good enough. A massive two thirds of the energy produced in our large, fossil fuel-burning power stations never reaches our homes: they always produce more than is actually needed, waste massive amounts of heat and lose a considerable amount of electricity in transmission from supplier to consumer. In short, our system is the epitome of inefficiency.

To remedy this, the Tories plan to decentralise the national grid. By shredding regulation and offering financial incentives, they hope to encourage small businesses, schools, hospitals and even Joe Public to install their own renewable energy sources, which they can feed back into the electricity network. They hope that a revolution in ‘micro-generation’, in addition to larger, industrial forms of renewable energy, will replace our wasteful, fuel-burning behemoths, slash our carbon emissions and – by increasing the sources of electricity – reduce our energy bills as well.

To compliment this, the Tories want to see each home and business having its own ‘smart meter‘. Smart meters are a more modern and interactive version of the bog-standard electricity meter, and give consumers will have a clearer picture of how much energy they use, how much it costs, and gives them the ability to change suppliers and consumption patterns. It’s not quite the ‘internet for energy’ that Cameron describes it as, but it still transforms the use of electricity from one of passive consumption to something more active and energy-conscious.

Finally, each household will be given the funding of up to £6,500 to introduce energy efficient improvements. Whilst the government has schemes to achieve the same goal (albeity more incrementally), it’s still true that even after their plan is complete, some 14 million homes will still lack the most basic efficiency measures.

There are some criticisms to be made. For one, it remains to be seen whether a scheme of such high ambitions will only cost £1bn, and it’s not entirely certain how this investment coheres with the Tories’ promise to slash the rate of public spending. Second, as George Monbiot notes, the plan overstates the amount of energy which can be produced from micro-generation, particularly in comparison to large off-shore wind farms. You’re not going to meet your energy needs just by putting a solar panel on your roof. It’s also worth remembering that many of these proposals have already been made by the Green Party & Liberal Democrats, who’ve both been leading the way on green energy, even if it gets little attention from the media.

Nonetheless, this plan proves that Cameron’s Conservatives are deadly serious about creating a low carbon economy. We can question whether their policies are good enough, go far enough, or whether his opposition to Heathrow expansion was mere opportunism, but we can’t deny that he’s committed to finding creative ways of solving one of the most intractable problems this country faces. For that, and that alone, he deserves great credit.

Who’s winning the war on welfare?

December 8, 2008 at 11:59 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, David Cameron, Gordon Brown, New Labour, Working Class Britain | 4 Comments
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There has never been a better – or a worse – time to reform the welfare system. Aided by a recession which has made public spending the top political issue, and the deep anger caused by the tragedies of Baby P and Shannon Matthews, the public have become far more receptive to the idea of a tougher, sanction-based system than they were in the halcyon days of summer. Short of a Labour rebellion on the scale of the 10p tax fiasco, our increasing antipathy towards the terminally jobless will probably see Purnell’s pet project sail through the Commons. And yet, as some are painfully aware, in days when the jobless figures keep rising, it’s hard to find jobs for the short-term unemployed, let alone those who have never worked in their lives.

The problem with trying to write about welfare reform is so much of the rhetoric tends to merge economic issues (the amount of money the state spends on the poorest in society) with social problems (the crime, poor education, family breakdown and general dysfunction which can be found in impoverished communities).The two are heavily linked, of course, but the mistake politicians often make is assuming that by producing policies to tackle the former, the latter will somehow fix itself.

The chief perpetrators of this mistake are the Labour government. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation points out, the primary weapon in Labour’s war on poverty has been expanding and incentivising employment, and whilst this worked fine during our Days of Plenty, it was unlikely to stand the test of time; we were always going to endure a recession at some point, and some of those lifted out of poverty by employment will inevitably fall back into poverty when they lose their job.

At the same time, whilst Labour had succeeded in extending prosperity to some, it’s been unable to tackle the underlying social problems which prevented the poor from finding work even during the boom years. We still have crime and violence, drug addiction, teen pregnancy and kids being raised by parents with barely a GCSE to their name, and there’s nothing in Purnell’s proposals which suggests that will change.

The Conservatives’ proposals are slightly more complicated to assess. Predictably enough, in the Mail on Sunday, David Cameron daubs a bleak, Lowryesque picture of working class Britain and indulges in the kind of crude moralising of someone who’s just read about poverty in the Daily Telegraph. But when you look beyond the  ‘Purnell on steroids’ part of the Tories’ plans, there’s an attention to social problems which sets them apart from Labour.

Yes, Cameron insists, we need to badger, cajole and ‘condition’ the poor into taking whatever work our newly-minted job centres will give them, but we also need tax breaks for married couples and greater freedom for schools. Furthermore, The Observer reports that they’d create a ‘new breed of welfare-to-work’ advisers, who, in addition to finding people jobs, would also assess their home lives and the conditions their children live in:

They could examine children’s school performance or problem behaviour, check whether the parents encouraged homework and school attendance, and intervene if necessary to stop children risking future unemployment.

I don’t want anyone to mistake me for a fan of these ideas. Even if marriage tax incentives really are designed to help the poor and aren’t just the Middle England-pleasing giveaway I assume them to be, it’s still a waste of money which could be put to good use elsewhere. And as for the proposed ‘home visits’ from welfare-to-work advisors, what that essentially amounts to is a quasi-criminalisation of unemployment and one of the most astonishing examples of right-wing authoritarianism I’ve seen in a long time.

Nonetheless, there is at least an acceptance on the Tories’ part that adequately reforming the welfare system will also require a commitment to tackling some of the causes and consequences of lifelong unemployment, that those problems have formed over generations and will take just as long to resolve. Their diagnosis of the problem is reasonably good, but their idea of the cure is emphatically not.

The war on welfare is still in its infancy, and I don’t think we can make any definitive conclusions from these opening skirmishes. However, now that the shortcomings of Labour’s attempts at tackling poverty are slowly being revealed, it’s time to look again at the causes of long-term unemployment and look to strategies which go beyond simply outsourcing job seekers to private contractors, crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. In their own, maddening, meddling way, the Tories have at least grasped that fact. Now it’s time for Labour to start catching up.

Image by Flickr user Neil101 (no relation!) (Creative Commons)

Cameron & Obama, class & race

July 9, 2008 at 9:00 am | Posted in Barack Obama, British Politics, Conservative Party, David Cameron, U.S. Politics | Leave a comment
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Since the (hurrah!) next American President is on his way over here and looks set to meet the likely (boo!) next British Prime Minister, here’s Andrew Sullivan on David Cameron & Barack Obama:

His policy prescriptions – more autonomy at the bottom of public services, more accountability within the public sector, a gentle tax incentive for marriage – are more in line with traditional conservatism than wage subsidies, for example. And there’s an Obamaite tinge to Cameron as well: a young, eloquent, inexperienced and culturally modern individual emerging to replace a period of rule by the other party. One similarity: both are gay inclusive. One Cameron difference: he, like any Tory should, places more emphasis on environmentalism than Obama does.

[...]

What Obama is to race in America Cameron is to class in Britain: cultural game-changers. (emphasis mine)

So America gets a black man to usher in a postracial future and Britain gets an old Etonian to usher in a post-class future? Great. It’s a wonder there are no Cameron murals in Barnsley.

Policy-wise, there are sure to be some similarities between Obama & Cameron. As a community-organiser, Obama has experienced what can be achieved by empowering people at a local level and the way America was devised means it’s very difficult to have the kind of large, centralised delivery of public services we have in Britain. If elected, both men would find their hands tied somewhat by our countries’ respective borrowing and budget deficits.

But I think Sullivan continually overstates the symbolic value of a Cameron premiership. Sure, a postracial America could only emerge with something as symbolic as a black man being elected President. By the same measure, Britain isn’t going to overcome class antipathy by electing yet another Prime Minister who attended Eton. If you look at the two men’s biographies, Obama mixed race and multiracial upbringing meant he was able to identify the antipathies and resentments that exist between black and white Americans – as a result, his campaign has made overcoming these divisions a key theme. Cameron, on the other hand, was reared in great privilege and has spent his entire life amongst wealthy conservatives who resent that their taxes go to such undeserving lowlifes as single parents and the unemployed. Until becoming leader of the Tories, he’s never been anywhere near the deprived side of Britain and can’t hope to speak of it without sounding like a dillettante.

Maybe Cameron is sincere, the Tories are serious about helping the poor and they all honestly believe this is best achieved through localism and decentralisation; only time will tell whether this is a real change or just ‘back to basics’ with superior presentation. But you won’t see a postclass Britain by electing someone for whom class has brought nothing but benefits; it’ll be by electing someone as Prime Minister who, like Obama, had to break a great many barriers just to get there

The Bullingdon Bash Street Kids

May 22, 2008 at 7:26 am | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, David Cameron | Leave a comment
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Let tories be tories! End discrimination against the rich! Jonathan Freedland on class and the Crewe by-election:

Class has been a factor in the byelection campaign, with Labour hounding Timpson for his silver-spoon upbringing, despatching volunteers to the constituency in top hats and tails. And class has become a factor in our national politics, with Labour proving that it has, as yet, no idea how to handle it.

At least the Tories clearly understand their vulnerability in this area. Note their forceful efforts to have a Labour flier, featuring a mocked-up photo of Timpson in a topper, suppressed. Note their more serious, and successful, campaign to have that now legendary – genuine and undoctored – photograph of the Bullingdon Club circa 1986, featuring Cameron and Boris Johnson in full regalia, withdrawn from circulation. (Luckily for them, newspapers have complied with this edict, even though the image is just a Google away.) These are pretty strenuous exertions for a party that says it’s relaxed about background, insisting that it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s where you’re going that counts. As Stefan Stern wrote in the Financial Times last week: “If David Cameron is so proud of the ‘great school’ he attended – it was Eton, by the way – why does he never mention it by name in public?”

Aye, if only the country weren’t so crippled by inverted snobbery – whatever have the mega-rich done to deserve being made to feel embarrassed by their extravagant wealth? Well, over in this small corner of blogtown, we celebrate diversity wherever it may be, which means that when we give this image another outing…

…we only do so to celebrate expert tailoring, 70′s hairdos and good breeding. 

For those keeping score, Boris is #8, whilst #2 is Tony Hadley David Cameron.

From the Telegraph:

As members of the Bullingdon dining club, which dates back more than 150 years, David Cameron and his friends were obliged to wear the outfits for their annual photograph. But within hours of the photo being taken, the 10 young men were wreaking havoc on Oxford, where they were all at university. One of them, said to be Ewen Fergusson, threw a plant pot through a restaurant window and the police were called. Some tried to make a getaway but were arrested and thrown in police cells overnight.

“The party ended up with a number of us crawling on all fours through the hedges of the botanical gardens, and trying to escape police dogs,” said Boris Johnson, who was among those arrested. “And once we were in the cells we became pathetic namby-pambies.”

Twenty years later most of the young men in this photograph are facing their 40s. Ewen Fergusson is a successful corporate lawyer and Boris Johnson is the shadow spokesman for higher education. Cameron is the leader of the Conservative Party, who said recently: “Like many young people, I did things when I was young that I should not have done and that I regret.”

He was probably referring to his youthful involvement with cannabis rather than the Bullingdon Club, but the destructive activities of the club mean that many of the members have developed an appropriate amnesia. “The blissful sponge of amnesia has wiped clean the slate of memory,” said Mr Johnson.

“Until I saw that photograph I had really forgotten all about it,” said another former member.

The Bullingdon modus operandi is to book a restaurant under a false name, smash it up, and throw large amounts of money at the upset owners — a form of behaviour which dates back to Victorian times.

See, they’re just ordinary folk like you and I – behaving like ‘rascals’, getting into ‘japes’, committing ‘tomfoolery’. The only difference is that most students vomit on the street after a ‘back to school’ party or think it’s hilarious to steal a traffic cone, whereas this lot just happen to smash up restaurants. Absolutely nothing to be embarrassed about…

Tories would ‘save up’ tax cuts

March 17, 2008 at 1:49 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, David Cameron, New Labour | Leave a comment
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For the past two elections, Labour had the Conservatives caught in a masterful political trap: if you want to slash taxes, they said, you’ll have to slash spending, and if you’re going to slash spending, you’re going to starve our schools and hospitals of the money they need to save lives, or give kids the best education possible. The argument evoked images of crumbling schools, hospitals with 12-month waiting lists and a beds shortage that left patients lying, unattended, in corridors. Though the argument alone didn’t win these elections – the Tories were being led by reactionary weasels who stoked fears about immigration in the hope that some random bigot might decide to vote for once – it was still one they didn’t have an answer for.

But you can only use a winning argument so many times before it loses its power to persuade; the Conservatives have been much wiser in how they attack Labour’s spending, sniping about the amount that’s wasted to bureaucracy and pointing out that for all the billons our government receives from tax payers, it still can’t stop them from losing the personal details of millions. Now, not only has the ‘tax cuts = spending cuts’ meme lost its power, but the Tories are already innoculating themselves against it:

Senior Conservatives have said they would not be able to offer immediate tax cuts if they won the next election. Tory leader David Cameron told the BBC’s Politics Show that tax cuts would be impossible at first because Labour had “left the cupboard bare”.

[...]

Mr Cameron said: “We have to recognise as an opposition that if we win the next election, it will be tough and there will not be some large kitty of money to spend and we will have to say no a lot, as well as hopefully being able to say yes to some of the things we want to do.”

He’s being disingenuous, of course – the guiding principle of Conservative government is saying ‘no’ and stopping the government from doing things. Still, it’s a very smart move; not only do they neuter New Labour’s attack that Tory tax cuts will equal big spending cuts, but they also hold out the hope of allowing tax cuts in their second term, if the conditions allow. In one deft move, he’s placated his base and reassured those in the centre. I miss the good old days when the party was ruled by idiots…

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