Matt Hancock is both a competent economist (read his account of the Great Recession) and a keen political strategist. Where possible he has used his position as minister for skills to position the coalition on the compassionate side of the employment argument; for example, with his considered support for the minimum wage. Yesterday, in an article for ConservativeHome, he pre-empted Labour’s attempt to shift economic focus to the cost of living, now that hopes of a recovery are building.

He made two basic points:

1). Labour’s record on the cost of living is abysmal – wages did not keep pace with growth during the boom. He says that gross disposable income fell by 1.1 per cent per head between 2003-08. ‘The crash and its aftermath made a bad situation worse,’ he says. The upshot of this is that the Tories are cleaning up Labour’s mess. The coalition used the same argument to great effect with deficit reduction.

2). Can you trust Labour with your wallet? Hancock lists the government’s achievements on tackling the cost of living (income tax threshold raised, council tax frozen and so forth) and contrasts them with Labour’s pledges, such as they are. ‘Billions worth of unfunded spending commitments,’ he tells us vaguely, ‘meaning more borrowing and more debt.’

Hancock’s article is a sketch of the classic incumbent re-election argument: we’re cleaning up the other guy’s mess; and, by the way, the other guy hasn’t changed a bit, so you can’t trust him. Lynton Crosby, Jim Messina et al will push this simple message between now and 2015.

None of which is to say that the government’s policies are easing the cost of living (QE and inflation, anyone?); but it is to say that the Tories are looking sharp and organised at present. Meanwhile, Labour appears to have gone rambling in the wilderness: rarely can the opposition have been so quiet during summer recess. There are a number of reasons for this stasis: from Ed Miliband’s weakness, to the hangover following last month’s row over Unite and selections. The steady flow of stories damaging the previous Labour government’s record on the NHS can’t have helped either. The Berwick Review of patient care after the Mid Staffs scandal is published today. Its headline conclusion is that patient safety must become a ‘top priority in the NHS’, which ought to go without saying.

Tags: Conservatives, Cost of living, Economy, Ed Miliband, Labour, Matt Hancock, NHS, Unite