If you are a centre ground ditherer, press one for an extra £8 billion of borrowed money for the NHS; if you are a hard-up C1 or C2, press two for no tax on the minimum wage and a discount on buying your housing association flat; if you are an exhausted working mum juggling kids, job and husband, press three for more childcare; if you are a one-earner family struggling to sustain a middle class lifestyle on £50,000 a year, press four; and if you don’t like mass immigration and foreigners running Britain, press five (but not too hard).
David Cameron sought to offer all the buttons yesterday as he launched the Conservative manifesto in fashionably unfashionable Swindon. Not the sort of place where Dave and Sam go for a date night. But, now that they are the party of the workers, some things have to give. Unveiling “Strong leadership, a clear economic plan, a brighter, more secure future” in a Notting Hill wine bar might send the wrong message.
The Tory manifesto contains something for everyone. Hardly an interest group in the land has gone unrecognised beyond pesky social conservatives. At its core, the document is seeking to recreate the Thatcher coalition of white collar professionals and working class aspirationals that proved so potent in the 1980s. The PM spoke of being a “patriot” and of wanting to enhance the country’s “buccaneering, world-beating spirit” as he sought to respond to noises off and inject greater optimism into the Tory pitch for power. (Quite how long a buccaneer would survive in today’s PC Britain is another matter, but let that pass).
On the premise that the old tunes are always the best, we heard plenty about his ambitions to finish the job and bring back the “good life”, which just happens to be one of the most popular sit-coms of the Thatcher era.
But will it work? Will it generate the six-point poll bounce Cameron badly needs to break out of the current stalemate? The pitch to more than a million housing association tenants and minimum wage workers (the latter nicked direct from Mr Farage) might just move the dial a bit on the council estates. But it lacks the shock value of Thatcher’s sale of council houses more than 30 years ago.
Then Britain was a far more stratified society in which the working class bloc and their more highly educated fellow travellers voted Labour, and the white collar brigade plus upwardly mobile manual workers plumped for the Tories. Thatcher’s direct appeal to the council house vote amounted to a political earthquake and helped create the far more fluid landscape we see today.
The Tesco versus Waitrose supermarket wars analogy holds good. Though in a startling bit of role reversal, Waitrose (the Tories) are emphasising price cuts and Tesco (Labour) is relying on a few special offers while emphasising value for money.
To come back to the social conservative/Ukip customers. Cameron nodded in their direction with his housing and minimum wage offers, but there were precious few concessions on Europe, immigration and grammar schools. The previous pledge to reduce annual net migration to the tens of thousands has been downgraded to an ambition; there is no commitment to expand grammars despite strong public support, and nothing new on the proposed In/Out referendum. About the only bone slung in the direction of Ukip supporters is a pledge to deny EU immigrants the right to claim benefits until they have been here four years.
Senior Tories are saying Ukip is on the slide, though this is not hugely borne out by the polls, which still have Farage’s gang averaging 14 per cent – far too high for a Conservative victory of any kind.
Cameron must think he has offered enough now. About the only button he has left is to harden his Europe stance and make clear that if he does not get his way with Brussels, he will be prepared to lead Britain out. High risk but potentially high reward.