David Cameron and George Osborne want us to think the Tories are the "new progressives" of British politics - but they can't stop reminders of the party's 'nasty' past from reappearing. Here's today's final Journal column before my summer break.
A few years ago, I posed the question as to whether voters of a leftish inclination would be better off with a Conservative party that sought to appeal to them, than with a Labour party seemingly only interested in pleasing those of a right-wing persuasion.
The conundrum arose as a direct consequence of David Cameron’s mission to “detoxify” the Tory brand following his election as Tory leader in autumn 2005.
For Mr Cameron, it meant focusing his energies on winning over left-of-centre voters concerned about public services and the environment, at a time when Labour’s Tony Blair continued to be more anxious about keeping traditional Conservative supporters on side.
Since Mr Blair moved on, Labour has thankfully stopped defining itself in opposition to its core voters, but as Shadow Chancellor George Osborne showed this week, the Tories remain as keen as ever to try on their opponent’s clothes.
The point was certainly not lost on stand-in premier Lord Mandelson, who in a masterly performance on Radio Four’s Today Programme on Wednesday, managed to dodge questions about his own prime ministerial ambitions by putting the boot into Ms Osborne at every opportunity.
“I think my old friend George Osborne is involved in a bit of political cross-dressing and I don’t think it’s going to fool anyone,” he said.
That “my old friend” was a reference to the fact these two have previous form. Nearly a year ago, each was accusing the other of trying to procure a donation to their respective party’s funds from the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
After briefly looking like he may have to resign from the Cabinet for a third time over a sleaze-related issue, Lord Mandelson decisively won that battle with a counter-attack that came close to ending Mr Osborne’s own frontbench career.
But putting personal rivalries to one side, what was really interesting about Mr Osborne’s audacious “we are the progressives” speech this week was what it told us about the underlying political consensus in the country.
And this, in turn, is perhaps the one thing that can still give Labour grounds for hope as it approaches the coming election battle.
Throughout all the troubles and travails of Mr Brown’s premiership over the past two years, the Prime Minister and his supporters have continued to clutch at a single straw – the fact that even though his government is wildly unpopular, there has been no fundamental shift in the climate of public opinion towards the Tories.
Mr Osborne’s speech this week proves the point. Rather than make the case for “conservative” values as Mrs Thatcher might have done, the Tories still feel the need to fight on what is essentially Labour ground.
As it is, Mr Osborne’s speech on Tuesday demonstrated the extent to which the word “progressive” has lost virtually all meaning in contemporary political debate.
It used to denote a form of taxation which sought to redistribute resources from the better-off to the worst-off, but since all parties subscribe to this to a greater or lesser extent, this definition does not help us much.
The central claim of Mr Osborne’s speech was that Labour’s “opposition to meaningful public service reform” meant it had “abandoned the field of progressive politics.”
While the Shadow Chancellor seems to be using “progressive” here to mean “reforming,” most Labour supporters would argue that a reform is only “progressive” if it actually helps the worst-off.
But this is more than just an arid debate about labels. The nature of Lord Mandelson’s response to Mr Osborne would suggest that Labour too believes “progressive” is a word worth fighting over.
And of course, Lord M. is quite right to point out that, in terms of its effect on the worst-off, the Tories plans for £5bn of public spending cuts would hardly be “progressive” in their human consequences.
The difficulty for Labour, as I pointed out a few weeks back, is that no-one now seriously believes that they won’t also be forced to make cuts of similar magnitude.
Maybe the argument, in the end, will come down to which of the two parties can convince the public they are wielding the axe with the greater reluctance.
Part of Mr Cameron’s problem, though, as he continues to try to persuade the public that the Tories have changed, is that old reminders keep popping up of their ‘nasty party’ past.
We already knew what Shadow Commons Leader Alan Duncan really thought about MPs’ expenses from his performance on Have I Got News For You a few weeks before this summer’s scandal broke.
“It’s a great system, isn’t it?” the one-time property millionaire told Ian Hislop as he struggled to contain the smug grin spreading across his face.
Mr Duncan claimed at the time that he had been joking – but the fact that he was later captured on film whingeing about MPs having to live on “rations” does rather give the game away.
Potentially even more damaging for Mr Cameron, though, were the comments by the prominent Tory MEP Daniel Hannan about the National Health Service.
Interviewed on US television, Mr Hannan backed Republican critics of President Obama’s plan for universal healthcare by saying he "wouldn't wish the NHS on anyone."
As Labour’s big hitters queued up to twist the knife yesterday, Mr Cameron was himself forced to take to the airwaves in a frantic bid to reassure the public once again that the NHS is safe in Tory hands.
Some are already seeing a Tory victory next year as a done deal - but episodes such as this show that Mr Cameron’s big rebranding exercise still has a way to run.