5 Jan 2015

General election year kicks off: are they winning friends or alienating?

Two Tory ministers and a Tory former minister approached me this morning in the Commons to say how “ghastly” they found the opening salvos of the election campaign: “nauseating,” one said; “awful, awful” said another.

They were responding in large part to the weekend attacks on Labour from their own side which were fleshed out today with an 80-page “dossier” which the Tory campaign says shows £20.7bn extra spending that Labour has committed to for the first year of the next parliament.

What hope the voters will be turned on by the opening volleys in this campaign, you might ask, if senior figures on the Tory benches are tuning out?

George Osborne was calm itself at the Tories’ press conference as he responded to challenges from the media on his dossier.

The dossier repeatedly assumes that Labour criticism of various cuts means Labour would reverse those cuts.

In a tactic deployed by Labour and the Tories in the past in office, the chancellor asked his own Treasury officials to cost policies which his political team imagined Labour wanted to spend money on.

It’s not a massively edifying process. Former Treasury permanent secretary and one-time cabinet secretary, Lord (Gus) O’Donnell, says it’s Treasury mandarins’ “least favourite part of the job” doing these politically-inspired chores – and he is one of many saying he would much rather an independent body like the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) did the adding up.

The Tories say that was deemed impractical in the short term by an independent reviewer working on the OBR’s behalf.

The Tories believe that for all the criticism levelled at their project today they are in a win-win situation.

Either they nail some Labour spending which has slipped by unnoticed, or they force Labour to disown some loose promise or sympathetic language and disappoint a special interest group that thought a Labour government might ride to its rescue.

Ed Balls thinks the whole effect might be to acquaint some new voters with his tight grip on spending.

For many voters, it may simply make them stick their fingers in their ears more defiantly than ever.

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