“YOU KNOW WHAT some people call us – the Nasty Party,” said Theresa May, almost two decades ago, but the quote stuck. The Conservative Party has undergone regular image makeovers since. During the pandemic, the pendulum swung back to One Nation largesse, with the Government unleashing unprecedented doses of public spending, albeit in circumstances dictated by emergency. The rhetoric changed too. We have Conservatives who heart the NHS. Compassionate Conservatives. Conservatives who believe in the Nation.
But the Scrooge-like transformation is difficult to credit. Even David Cameron started out with “hug a hoodie”. But when opportunity came knocking, he embraced austerity with barely concealed glee. It was presented as a coldly rational matter of economics: spreadsheets don’t lie, cuts must be made. But the consensus was really founded on a sadistic psychology framed in crude stereotypes: strivers not skivers. And no amount of logic shifted those perceptions. The vast evidence of in-work poverty did nothing, decades of government and media propaganda having served to convince people that the poor were workshy, feckless and dependent on drugs or alcohol.
We are fast approaching another crunch point in Conservative ideology. Temporary economic supports for the pandemic are up for review. A report by the Fabian Society suggests that if the Government fails to maintain its £20 per week Universal Credit top up, then it would put 700,000 into poverty at a stroke. For families themselves – most of them working households – it would cut a huge slice from their incomes, an annual £1,050. The problem is not simply the scale of the cut. The problem is that they will have just a month to plan for such an extraordinary change in circumstances.
The mooted cuts have disproportionate impacts on groups who really should be protected. 57 percent would hit families with a disabled adult; half would affect families with children; 12 percent would hit households where someone is a carer. All of which is grimly predictable. Nobody was really in any doubt that the last decade of “welfare reform” was squeezing society’s most vulnerable, to shield elite incomes and to achieve a “competitive market” in cheap labour.
One complication, this time around, will be the Conservative’s new political base in Northern England. With Labour having branded itself as the party of the middle classes and the cities, the Tories have seats in some of Britain’s most impoverished regions. For this reason, they cannot simply revert to Cameron’s “let them eat cake” cosmopolitanism. They may have to play the national unity card, and work that bit harder to stop the mask slipping. That said, all the party’s instincts will be screaming that here lies an opportunity to sharpen Britain’s competitive edge with a good old fashioned dose of Dickensian poverty.