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The Tories’ economic tightrope

24 January 2014

8:50 AM

24 January 2014

8:50 AM

When things were going pretty badly for the Conservatives, ministers reassured one another that soon they’d be able to start hitting back at Labour with statistics. They’re doing that now – and are hitting as often as possible, even when it’s Labour’s turn to say something. Today the party has released figures to back up David Cameron’s claim at PMQs this week that people are better off, and they show that most people’s earnings are increasing by more than inflation.

Now, Labour is quibbling the stats themselves, pointing out that they don’t involve benefit cuts and tax rises. But while Labour is overall losing in the battle of stats, there is one attack that its ministers have been making this morning that is more dangerous than a stat attack. Cathy Jamieson this morning on Radio 5 Live accused the Conservatives of trying to suggest that people have ‘never had it so good’: her aim is to paint the Tories as complacent and banking the recovery already, which is particularly potent for those voters who remain pessimistic about the recovery (An Ipsos Mori poll on 12 January 2014 found that the percentage of British people who are optimistic about the economy has risen from 9% in 2012 to 29%, while 40% feel pessimistic compared to 74% in 2012, which shows that more people are feeling the recovery – but not everyone).

The Conservatives have said no such thing. Those statistics have been couched in very careful language, with the Prime Minister cautioning that the recovery will ‘take time’ and Matt Hancock taking similar care in broadcast interviews not to suggest any form of complacency. But the Tories also need to tread a tightrope between encouraging voters to think that better days are on the way thanks to the Coalition, and fostering such optimism about the recovery that voters think it is safe to vote in a high-spending Labour government. This is the tension that ministers are acutely aware of – and one Labour hopes to exploit.

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