Amber Rudd will be keeping a low profile this weekend. The sight of a working mother on Question Time, tearfully confronting the Energy Secretary over cuts to working tax credits, won’t have made easy viewing for the Tory press machine. Earlier this month, at Conservative Party Conference, George Osborne reiterated again and again that core Tory message, so ardently championed by Harlow MP Robert Halfon and groups like Bright Blue: this is the (real) party of hard-working people. So last night’s former Tory voter was heavily on message, until suddenly, she wasn’t. ‘I work bloody hard for my money to provide for my children, to give them everything they’ve got… and you’re going to take it away from me and them.’ It was supposed to be redistributive Jeremy Corbyn who was accused of raiding the family kitty, not the sensible men in suits.
It’s a moment that encapsulated every dark association still lurking around voter attitudes to the Tories. They’re out of touch. They lack empathy. They’re on the take and have nasty friends. But worst of all, they lie as easy as blinking. Last night’s questioner wasn’t just a problem because she disagrees with Tory policy. She’s a problem because she voted Tory at the last election, and now she feels betrayed. ‘You’re about to cut tax credits after promising you wouldn’t.’ (Largely true). Focus group after focus group continues to show that the Tories lose on empathy, decency, moral vision. You just can’t trust them.
As long as Jeremy Corbyn leads the Labour party, that might not matter. Even left-wing pollsters, like the TUC, acknowledge that voters want a government which can balance the budget and steer an economy. Conservatives win, routinely, on competence, responsibility, decision making. No wonder George Osborne, never one to miss a visit to a building site, went heavy on infrastructure and accounting during last week’s conference speech, talking about ‘the natural party of government’ while tie-less Corbyn heckled from a protest outside. But what happens one day – maybe not tomorrow – when the opposition finally finds a leader who can offer competence, too?
Like him or loathe him, (and it pains me, at least, to type this) Jeremy Corbyn’s geography-teacher-of-The-People aesthetic still wins moral credibility with voters, even if he’s actually picking up his ethical roadmap each time he pops into the offices of Iranian or Russian state TV. Nowhere was this more clear than during the government’s disgraceful behaviour over the Ministry of Justice’s contract with Saudia Arabia. True, Michael Gove did a stellar job of scotching the deal from the inside – no surprise, as I wrote on Tuesday, from a man whose clarity of moral vision, uncompromising as it may be, stems from a deeply Christian commitment to human rights. And his old employers, the Times, conveniently put the pressure on Cameron at just the right time. But if any Tory opponent of the deal leaked details to Corbyn before the Labour Conference – and this has, of course, been denied – then they also handed the Labour leader a golden opportunity to target the party’s essential weaknesses. Making money from the Saudis? They’re out of touch. They lack empathy. They’re on the take and have nasty friends. But worst of all, they lie as easy as blinking.
Of course, the simplest way for the Tories to have avoided this situation was to have never done such a disgraceful deal in the first place. Some modernisers genuinely think that working with the Saudi justice system offered an opportunity for engagement, and slow, incremental progress (Crispin Blunt among them). But some regimes are surely beyond the pale. Immigrant workers are kept in near-slavery under the kafala system; women are their menfolk’s property: no wonder, then, that railroaded female immigrant servants make up the overwhelmingly majority of victims of capital punishment. As I argued at the time, if our cabinet was majority female there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell the British flag would have been lowered to mourn King Abdullah. Or – can you imagine it – if the Kingdom routinely dehumanised human beings who have penises, instead of XX chromosomes.
Corby has dodgy friends in the Middle East, too: most notably, the Sunni Saudi Kingdom’s local rival, Shia Iran. But Philip Hammond’s Foreign Office can hardly cry hypocrisy unless it finds its own moral backbone first. When Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have gone the way of Ceausescu and Elvis, when this week’s U-turn on Budget Responsibility is long forgotten, British voters will still remember that the Tories sold Britain to dictators. On foreign policy, as much as domestic policy (housing, surely, is the next social crisis at home), the Tories are still, too often, the Nasty Party. The Conservative Party claims a monopoly on competence; it must challenge the left’s monopoly on morality, too.