Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Cameron error gives Labour first blood in election campaign.

David Cameron's greatest trick has been to avoid ever getting into details. But, one gets the distinct feeling that he will find it increasingly harder to play this game as the general election approaches and more pressure is placed upon him to give us the specifics. And, if yesterday is anything to go by, he may very well find himself running into trouble.

Yesterday, he found himself claiming that tax benefits for being married could not be guaranteed, only to reverse his stance within hours.

He had been responding to Labour's detailed 145-page dossier alleging that the Conservatives had "a £34bn credibility gap", with the chancellor, Alistair Darling, claiming the Tories have so far only shown how they will fund a quarter of £45bn of their spending promises, including tax cuts. Cameron dismissed Labour's dossier as "complete junk" and dodgy, but then appeared to sow confusion in his own ranks by saying his earlier totemic promise to guarantee marriage in the tax system was only a hope.

In an attempt to demonstrate his fiscal responsibility, Cameron initially said of his marriage tax plans: "It is something we want to do, something we believe we can do, it's something, within a parliament, I'll definitely hope to do. I am not today able to make that promise because we face this vast budget deficit – it is a clear and present danger to our economy. The public understand we cannot make all these promises up front. I think that is a very straightforward and honest way of explaining it."

But within two hours, he rushed out a statement saying: "Recognising marriage in the tax system is something I feel very strongly about and something we will definitely do in the next parliament. We will set out exactly how in due course."

His office admitted he should have been clearer, but denied there was any wider importance to his remarks.

I love the fact that his office are claiming that "he should have been clearer". The fact is that he was perfectly clear that "we cannot make all these promises up front", only to reverse that position very quickly and make one of the very promises which he told us that he could not make.

The truth is that Cameron's Tories are wobbling since coming under what feels like election scrutiny.
Darling, at his press conference, claimed the Conservatives had accounted for only around a quarter of the funding needed to deliver their pre-election pledges including £21bn tax cuts, £13.3bn reversed tax rises, and a broad promise to cut the £175bn deficit faster than Labour. He warned that the shortfall could only mean tax rises or deeper spending cuts than the Conservatives had previously announced. The Tories insisted Labour had shown sleight of hand by turning Tory aspirations into firm pledges.
And right there is a further indication of the way Cameron has achieved his lead in the polls. He is making a distinction between "aspirations" and "firm pledges". In other words he is demanding that he be allowed wriggle room. He's trying to campaign on what he would like to do as opposed to what he will actually do.

Unless he is taken to task on it - as happened on the subject of tax breaks for married couples - when Cameron, under pressure, suddenly finds it easy to give the very guarantee that he was telling us that he could not give.

That's his first serious wobble. And it tells me that he is not a conviction politician. He's a crowd pleaser.

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