The week in Westminster: 2015 battle lines are drawn

Are we in the midst of a cost of living crisis? Or is the economy turning a corner? Or are we still not even seeing a meaningful recovery yet?

The answer isn’t clear, but what is certain is that the battle lines for 2015 are being drawn ahead of this year’s conference season. Osborne spoke (cautiously, but frankly) on Monday of an economy “turning the corner” – and he was determined that the plaudits for this recovery should fall to the Tories and their austerity strategy. Labour, in this narrative, were not only in power when the recession started, but they made the wrong call on how to build recovery as well – a powerful message for 2015.

Labour’s response has been to switch target. Last week Ed Balls tacitly admitted that the debate over growth is essentially over; a growing economy means that calls for a “Plan B” don’t resonate any more. Instead, Labour has ramped up its attack on falling living standards. Ed Miliband might have been embarrassed by comments from the Prime Minister about his position as leader at PMQs today, but it was impossible not to notice that the PM was put under pressure by questions on the impact that inflation is having on people’s budgets.

Yet it is the Labour leader who is under ever increasing personal pressure. His speech to the TUC – which had been built up in the media as a showdown between the Labour leader and the unions – was seen by many as hugely underwhelming. Miliband failed to strike a conciliatory tone with the unions while also failing to turn the spat to his advantage by sticking wholly to his guns. His position won’t have been helped by polling out today that has his personal approval rating at its lowest ever level – ensuring that all eyes will be on his crucial speech at Labour conference in two weeks’ time.

For the Liberal Democrats, it’s generally assumed that their position in Government will naturally tend to temper their criticism of the Coalition’s economic strategy. But it was noteworthy that Business Secretary Vince Cable has spoken openly of his belief that Osborne was wrongly seeking to take the credit for the recent upturn – instead arguing that growth has come from “pragmatic British businesses and flexible British workers”. Such strong criticism of his own Government’s impact on the economy perhaps reflects Cable’s position as something of a renegade, but come 2015 it’s clear that the Lib Dems will have their own interpretation of the Coalition’s legacy and their role in securing recovery.

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