This government will not lose when it fails on Labour’s terms. It will not lose the next election on the NHS, cuts to frontline services or climate change, despite conspicuous failings on these three fronts and many others about which Labour activists and voters care deeply.
They won’t fail on these terms because – for a variety of reasons covered interminably here and elsewhere – at the last election, and for at least six months after that, we let the Tories set the debate, and the debate was about the deficit.
Voters were convinced that the deficit was the single most important issue. Yes for enough of them to be convinced that they could stomach voting for a “nasty” party, they needed the huskies, the NHS pledges, the hoody-hugging. But once those votes were cast, people didn’t want to think they were wrong in the choice they made.
That need to have made the right choice reinforced the importance of the deficit as the only measure that matters. Ok so the Tories actually remained that nasty party all along, but maybe that was what needed to bring down the deficit and get the economy moving again.
And every time voters began to question the primacy of deficit reduction above all else, that message was reinforced. While Labour tried to fight the coalition on the myriad different fronts the Coalition audaciously opened up, the Tories and their Liberal cohorts were on the most disciplined messaging campaign seen outside of a dictatorship.There was no issue that couldn’t be sold as solving the “failure of the last Labour Government to control the deficit” no measure introduced that wasn’t going to “bring down record debt left us by the last government”.
That the Government have set the terms of debate for this Parliament is undeniable. Whether in the end this will be a success is still completely up for debate. Because here’s the rub: the Government have set the terms for success, and by their own terms they are publicly and spectacularly failing.
The Government planned on the economy following a more traditional contraction and expansion. They bet the PLC on the economic cycle continuing to turn. Osborne put everything on black. Today he had to announce that the figure has come up red. George is not going to make it back into the black before 2015.
Now the Government have plenty of time to change the narrative. Or they could decide that their failure is still less toxic to the public than Labour’s and continue this narrative. Labour need answers on this stuff too – and soon.
But the Government today reneged on the deal they made with the electorate. Having built up the deficit into the only thing that matters, they now can’t do what they promised and wipe it out. All the while also reneging on the secondary promises they made about the NHS, crime, climate change etc.
This Government has failed on the one promise they convinced voters mattered. This may well be a defining moment.