At a fringe event during the Conservative party conference recently, former secretary of state for Wales, Cheryl Gillan said that in order for the party to win the general election in 2015 they needed to restore their reputation for competence.
She said the frequent and painful U-turns and political embarrassments such as the ‘pasty tax’ fiasco and the First trains financial fiasco undermined the Conservatives traditional reputation for order and competence compared with the ideological chaos and woolly headedness of the left.
However, if she told her MPs what she told the grass roots party members in the meeting, then it has obviously fallen on deaf ears.
Since plebgate, the furore over former chief whip Andrew Mitchell allegedly shouting and swearing at a Downing Street police officer who did not allow him access to the street on his bicycle, which was bubbling away throughout the conference season their record has read more like an episode of the Thick of It than the actions of members of the G7.
First there was the surprise announcement from the Prime Minister that the government were planning to force energy companies to put all customers on their cheapest tariff available, a move widely regarded as unworkable and anti-competitive.
Then, his already unpopular Chancellor George Osborne, added fuel to the fire by first dismissing the green lobby as the “environmental Taliban” and then instigated what Twitter called the “great train snobbery” by accidentally sitting in a first class train carriage with a standard class ticket and refusing to move.
What should have been a small piece of gossip for lobby journalists to pass around Westminster soon mushroomed into a minor political scandal thanks to an ITV news reporter, Rachel Townsend who happen to be on the same train and the modern, news hungry and slightly giddy force of hundreds of political journalists, bored and on Twitter on a Friday afternoon.
In the aftermath of Osborne’s ticket trauma, Mitchell was forced to fall on his sword by announcing his resignation despite being given the support of the Prime Minister and the 1922 committee of backbench Tories early in the week. They had previously derided calls for his dismissal as an attempt by the policing lobby to embarrass the government in shelving there cuts to the force.
George Osborne is not the first person to accidental get on a train with the wrong ticket and Andrew Mitchell is certainly not the first person to lose their temper with a police officer (although the typical person faces up to a £1000 fine for doing so in normal circumstances) but the in which they did it has provoked the ire of the public in the exact way the party’s press team was trying to avoid.
The long suffering Conservative party press team and their supporters in the right wing press have been at pains to re brand the Conservative party as a new, nicer antidote to the ‘nasty party’ of years past ever since the comparatively progressive David Cameron became party leader in 2005.
However the effect of their welfare cuts and their supposed assault on access to further and higher education through cuts to the Education Maintenance Allowance and the tuition fee rise has made the public turn away from their tentative (and effectively half hearted, given the election result) support for the Conservatives in 2010 and 2011 now that they the economy appears to be tanking once again with only millionaires appearing to benefit.
While instances of police abuse and fare dodging are not enough on their own to do much damage to the Conservative party image, the class snobbery that has tainted both episodes in a way the rest of the political establishment will not let them forget for awhile. This is especially bad when Ed Miliband and the left wing have controlled the media cycle for the past six months.
In the modern political era calling someone a ‘pleb’ and telling them to ‘mind their place’ is unforgivable (and would have been in poor taste fifty years ago anyway. Refusing to sit in standard class is slightly less of a PR disaster but in this current economic climate, for the man who is supposedly in charge of managing the UK economy it is especially insensitive.
So it looks like the upper class ‘nasty party’ will continue to dog the government until the next election (as Labour will never let them forget it). However, this tag does necessarily spell election defeat in times of economic hardship as the British public is always looking for a scapegoat to blame.
Right before they entered government, Cameron and the conservatives successfully changed the political narrative from the recession being cause by a global financial crisis that was exacerbated by the dangerously reckless actions of the world’s financial industries to a simple problem of spending too much of the government on public sector pensions.
And for at least a year, it worked. So did the proposed cap on child benefit and job seeker’s allowance. These were direct appeals to their middle englander voter base who have traditionally felt put upon by the UK’s tax system.
However, their cuts have become a narrative of ideological bullying of the most vulnerable members of society, particularly the obviously disabled, whilst the richest get away with tax dodging.
Now that the media cycle is against them, their only recourse is their traditional reputation for competence. The Conservatives, and stereotypically the right in general, have always been seen as the party that is strong and steady and not prone to internal chaos unlike New Labour under Blair and Brown.
Regardless of whether they agree with their policies or not, the Conservatives’ reputation as a strong leader is what the public want to believe in, in times of economic and social instability- therefore their constant U-turning and attempts to please will do nothing but ensure that Labour gets a majority in 2015, regardless of whether the economy improves or not.
After all, comparisons to John Major’s government between 1992-97 have been made frequently over the past few months, by 1997 the economy was in rude health but the Conservatives reputation was in tatters.