The coalition government, despite its differences, is united by a single maxim: blame Labour.
As Philip Hammond arrived at the ministry of defence on Saturday to takeover from Liam Fox, his words for the cameras waiting outside were not about his predecessor’s resignation, or the cabinet secretary’s ongoing investigation into his links to Adam Werritty, but about “the mess that Labour left behind”.
"Liam Fox did a great job here at defence”, he told Sky News: “He made a great start in clearing up the mess that Labour left behind at the MoD and I look forward to picking up that challenge.”
It’s not just the Conservative coalition members. Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury, recently demanded Labour apologise for leaving “the biggest mess we’ve seen since the 1930s... Labour politicians debating the economy should start with one word, sorry.”
A government blaming the former incumbents for the desperate state it finds itself in is not a new strategy. When Margaret Thatcher rose to power in 1979, she was determined to blame the Labour government for Britain’s winter of discontent.
It was a narrative which stuck. Richard Jobson, an academic at Bristol’s history department, says it “shaped New Labour in a massive way”.
“Margaret Thatcher one is a case in point of how an idea can last for a very long time. Thatcher tried to blame the winter of discontent on Labour and the unions - that ran and ran and ran, for 18 years.
“That's a good example of a constructed crisis. In historical terms, we're big on how the winter of discontent was constructed as a crisis and how it enabled the new right and the conservative party and how it shaped New Labour in a massive way because they had to respond to that narrative about unions.”
In return, Labour blamed Thatcher - when not consumed by internal infighting. During his party’s eleventh year in power, Gordon Brown delivered a speech saying the Conservative’s legacy was a lack of social mobility, and Thatcher was responsible for "denying many children the chance to progress".
ComRes chief Andrew Hawkins says it’s an argument that can run and run: “As a general rule the other lot messed it up argument has low resonance but for a long time. Margaret Thatcher used it in successive general elections. Tony Blair didn't need to use it quite so much.”
The question is, how much does the argument resonate? Hawkins says ComRes have been tracking it: “Labour still have to answer the charge that when they're in power the economy gets messed up. There's lots of evidence for that.”
The irony? “Ed Miliband is the only person we test who actually lectured in economics at Harvard and he and Ed Balls both come bottom, David Cameron and George Osborne get more than twice their rating in confidence.
“That just shows how deep a hole they're in, even though they've got all the credentials. Part of it is about the overall presentation but part of it is voters aren't going to trust them on the economy for a very long time, which is the single biggest issue of the day”, Hawkins says.
While the latest polls show 59% believe the coalition is managing the economy badly, with 77% agreeing they are handling job creation and unemployment badly, 60% also believe Ed Miliband is a poor leader of the Labour party.
But it’s not all bad news for Labour. Some Conservatives have begun to speak out against blaming the party for the state of the economy, with the Tory Reform Group blog saying the economy belongs to the government now. And Jobson says it is not clear if the coalition’s narrative will work, and with the publication of Labour’s five point plan to revive the economy. the party have a platform through which to attack the coalition.
He adds: “The question is whether the narrative that the deficit is Labour's fault is working - and if, given the serious economic times and high unemployment, it will wash with the public.”Suggest a correction