Cabinet tensions over Gordon Brown’s “class war” tactics erupted in public on Sunday as Tory leader David Cameron attempted to rise above the fray with a call for “a good, clean” election campaign.
Amid growing unease among senior Labour figures over a leftward shift in party strategy, two cabinet ministers warned that branding the Conservatives as privileged public schoolboys could backfire at the ballot box.
Tessa Jowell, Cabinet Office minister, and Jack Straw, justice secretary, dismissed class warfare tactics as ineffective and made it clear that most people were not “responsible for the school they went to”.
The comments echo Lord Mandelson’s private concerns that stoking class division will motivate Labour grassroots only at the expense of the middle-class voters the party depends on to stay in power.
Eric Pickles, Tory chairman, said the remarks were another sign that cabinet members were “deserting Gordon Brown’s disastrous class warfare attacks”. “A government plagued by such deep divisions was not fit to run the country,” he said.
Mr Brown recently quipped that Tory tax plans were “dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton”, which some colleagues saw as the rhetorical flourish to a strategy of taxing bankers and protecting public spending.
But Mr Brown’s aides insist the Eton remark was merely “one gag” aimed at highlighting the Tory inheritance tax policy and dismissed accusations of class warfare as “nonsense created by the Tories”.
At the time, Mr Cameron shrugged off the “spiteful” attacks, saying he was “not in the slightest bit embarrassed” about his old school. But some Tories have been taken aback that the approach has given Labour a lift in the polls, primarily through revitalising disillusioned core Labour supporters.
On Sunday, Mr Cameron used his new year message to urge his colleagues to shun dirty politics during the election campaign and “rise above” their differences to work in partnership.
“We can be certain too that the arguments will be fierce. But let’s make it a good, clean fight,” he said.
His festive goodwill was particularly directed at Liberal Democrat voters – a constituency some Tories are desperate to win over to achieve a majority.
In an overture to Lib Dem supporters, the Tory leader said “there is a lot less disagreement than there used to be” over how to achieve a “safer, fairer, greener” Britain.
Although the sentiment is primarily intended as a device to snatch Lib Dem votes, the conciliatory gesture will be seen as a further sign the Tories could work with the Lib Dems in the event of a hung parliament.