1 Mar 2013

Tory options limited after Eastleigh

Take a look at this last-minute “get the vote out” leaflet distributed in Eastleigh by the Tories yesterday (thanks to Guido Fawkes)

It not only steals Ukip colours but the messaging, too: “Maria Hutchings and the Conservatives want to give you an in-out referendum.”

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On immigration: “The Conservatives want tough targets for further cuts.”

And on welfare: “The Conservatives want further changes to make our welfare system even fairer.”

It is a world apart from the agenda David Cameron promised when he ran for the Tory leadership. But some Tory MPs say that despite coming third in Eastleigh, it shows where David Cameron should shift his message. He will only start winning when he sounds more like Maria Hutchings, one MP said.

David Cameron can forget his idea of delivering the in/out referendum speech and then going quiet on Europe, one MP told me. “He did not kill the Ukip fox with that speech – Europe is back,” the MP said.

What do Tory MPs want their leadership to do next? One MP said many of his colleagues are talking as the Daily Telegraph does today, about a much tougher line on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration, perhaps even by closing the border to Romanians and Bulgarians flouting EU law .

Three Tory MPs I spoke to said they wanted a penny off the basic rate of tax in the budget to connect with working families feeling the squeeze in their budgets.

All said, you could fund it by deeper cuts in spending. But there are already squeals of pain from ministers being asked to find the cuts already announced. One minister said all the policy options the Tory MPs most want are unfeasible, unaffordable or illegal.

The one giveaway that George Osborne has planned, now being held back for the budget, is the help for childcare – the only expansion of the welfare state this government plans.

But that doesn’t go down well with lots of Tory MPs who’d prefer a married tax allowance, not something they think tries to engineer mothers with young families out the front door to work.

One Tory minister said to me: “We just have to plug on.”

The mood among Tory MPs (beyond the hard core who are plotting) is not as febrile as I expected. Expectations of Eastleigh had been managed down. But no-one I spoke to thinks the Tories are on the path to 2015 election victory as things stand.

And if the budget disappoints, the local election results in May are miserable and the clock ticks closer to the general election, the mood could darken.

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