Tuesday 9 March 2010

A cooler cup of tea

He is the leading advocate of the British Tea Party vanguard, yet Daniel Hannan MEP may be slipping sensibly down the Palin-o-Meter scale this morning.

Hannan makes a series of partisan points in his paean of praise to Eric Pickles, but he also offers a rare acknowledgement from the right that wanting lower spending and less government as a matter of principle is a minority pursuit, quietly admitting that "the country" can not be convinced on that basis.

If the Conservatives win the next election – and I remain convinced that they will - there will need to be drastic action to restore order and sanity to our public finances. In order to win that argument, ministers will need to convince the country, not just that large minority who want spending reductions on principle. It is perfectly possible to have voted Labour in 1997, wanting the government to spend more on public services, but to feel that things have gone too far. It is perfectly possible to have been satisifed with the level of taxation and borrowing as recently as 2008, but to be horrified by our Greek-level deficit today.

You could call this the 'most taxpayers don't agree with the taxpayers alliance' insight.

It may be churlish to quibble with this tacitly centrist advocacy - but you could question "large minority" a bit too.

Findings depend on what question is put and how. But the longest established British Social Attitudes academic series, offered lower spending and lower taxes against either the status quo, or more spending with higher taxes, then even moderate moves in favour of the populist Taxpayers Alliance/Tea Party mission win the support of 8%.

Public support for increasing taxation and public spending is now at its lowest level since the early 1980s. 39% support this, down from 62% in 1997. Only 8% support cuts. The most popular view, held by 50%, is that spending and taxation levels should stay as they are.

The unpopularity of less public spending has been the central insight informing the Conservative leadership's wibbly-wobbly flip-flops on spending and taxation.

So Cameron and Osborne began by endorsing Labour's spending plans in full before promoting big immediate spending cuts in the age of austerity, while still promoting a series of discrete tax cuts spending increases. In the last month, they handbrake turn to suggest immediate cuts would be really quite modest, before denying anything had changed at all in their determination on the deficit. And so it goes.

You can hear how the focus groups and poll findings seem to be exacerbating the neuralgic scars of their 2001 and 2005 election defeats.

With most of the party base believing the answer is more more Tory Red Meat, this apparent outbreak of centrist sensiblism from Daniel Hannan may come as some small measure of relief.

For as long as it lasts anyway.

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