Scarcely a day passes without some newspaper kite-flying or mood music designed to cheer up the disgruntled core Tory vote.
The latest wheeze, courtesy of Tory MP and Downing Street policy board member Nadhim Zahawi, is to slash £5 billion off the welfare bill by restricting child benefit and child tax credit to the first two children of a family.
This comes hard on the heels of George Osborne’s call for further cuts in the still gigantic welfare budget (one third of all public spending) in the next Parliament and moves by Cameron and Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith to impose new curbs on the eligibility of migrants (including those from the EU) for state handouts. These include a requirement that they should be able to speak reasonable English before signing on, a qualification that has predictably provoked the ire of Brussels and threats of legal action.
Cameron has gone even further by suggesting that the EU’s fundamental principle of the free movement of labour should be set aside for EU newcomers where average wages are far below those that apply in wealthier countries such as Britain.
Theresa May, always ready to polish her right-wing credentials, got in on the act at the weekend, courtesy of The Sunday Times, by flying a most-spectacular contraption emblazoned with the notion of a 75,000 cap on EU migration (down 30,000 on the current level of 106,000 a year) and a disinterment of Gordon Brown’s British Jobs for British Workers.
Meanwhile, according to Cameron, green taxes are being rolled back or to use the more graphic language of Downing Street insiders, it is time to “cut the green crap”.
And in a further sign of the times, Conservative Party Headquarters, has literally gone in for a makeover, instructing its council candidates to drop the sunshine and blue skies imagery of the past for a more sober and patriotic colour scheme featuring the union flag and a darker shade of blue. How long before the oak tree logo, looking for all the world like the winner of the third prize in a primary school painting competition, goes the way of the torch of the Thatcher years?
The merits or otherwise of these proposals are less important than the fact that they are being mooted at all, although it should be said that middle class mothers who choose to stay at home to look after their children rather than sub-contract their care to others, won’t look too kindly on a further assault on their family finances. They have not forgiven Cameron for robbing them of their child benefit if their husband earns over £50,000 a year and are cross about the in-built bias in the tax system against one-earner couples. Perhaps Zahawi’s kite will soon find itself entangled in that end-of-line oak tree.
But what they do signify is that, under pressure, the Prime Minister is shifting his ground to the Right. Three opinion polls yesterday gave Labour a 6-7 point lead and, more ominously, put UKIP on 13-18 per cent, with the Tories in the low 30s and the Lib Dems nowhere.
Hugging hoodies and huskies is so yesterday. And absolutely no one is urging us to “vote blue, go green”. Letting “sunshine rule the day” has also been slung in the dressing up box, which is ironic given that for the first time since Gordon Brown’s demolition job, the economy is actually growing.
The general election may still be 18 months away, but the pressure is real. In a couple of weeks’ time, border restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian migrants must be lifted and the Government is bracing itself for an almighty political backlash.
More than 70 Tory Mps are championing moves to change the law to keep the restrictions in place and plan a Commons debate this week to press their case. Next month, they plan to vote on a rebel amendment to the Immigration Bill in an attempt to force a showdown with ministers and all-out war with Brussels.
May be poverty-stricken Romanians and Bulgarians will take a look at our “nasty country” – as it was dubbed by the Hungarian official rejoicing in the title of European Commissioner for Social Affairs and Inclusion – and decide to opt for a bit of German efficiency, French cuisine or Italian sun. May be MigrationWatch’s predictions of 50,000 Romanian and Bulgarian migrants a year will prove wide of the mark.
But after what former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw now admits was the “spectacular mistake” of predicting a few thousand migrants when Poland and nine other countries joined the EU in 2004, only for a cool million to head for British shores, no one is betting on a mild influx this time.
The Prime Minister is repositioning himself fast in the hope he can deter a major new wave of immigration and keep Nigel Farage’s army of Tory (and Labour) defectors at bay.
How long before his drift of the last few weeks turns into a full-scale lurch?
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