With middle England increasingly battered by the credit crunch and rising inflation, Conservative leader Dave Cameron has chosen to make the state of the economy a key battleground with Labour. For many years the strong state of the economy meant that it got a low rating on voters' rankings of important issues. But voters tend to punish governments for economic failure rather than reward them for success and the economy is becoming a key issue again.
Of course in the global recession of the early 1990s (but before 'Black' Wednesday damaged the Conservatives' ratings for economic competence for fifteen years) voters stayed (just) with the Conservatives in the 1992 election on the principle of 'stick to nurse for fear of something worse'. However, that may not work for New Labour despite their attempts to depoliticise economic management. Voters are likely to blame Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling for tight family budgets rather than Mervyn King or the downturn in the global economy. Or so the Conservatives hope.
Dave Cameron has stressed that a Conservative government should be judged on whether it delivered economic stability rather than tax cuts. This message does not please many Conservative activists, but it is a responsible one which enhances the image of the opposition as a government in waiting. Mr Cameron emphasised that he wants to cut the size of the state but that reducing borrowing came before tax cuts.
He also said that he would seek a restoration of Britain's opt out from the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty. How feasible that is is open to question, but some employers would argue that Britain's reputation for labour market flexibility has been undermined by measures on working hours (the working time directive) and proposals on temporary and agency workers (albeit resisted by the Government). The contrary view would be that these measures provide necessary protection to workers at a time when unions have weakened.
The difficulty is that opting out would require the unanimous agreement of all the other 26 EU members which is a near impossibility. It could be that Conservative strategists regard this as good ground on which to provoke a crisis with the EU but that is a risky path which may not win the support of the businesses the Conservatives are trying to help.