In October 2002 Theresa May, the then Chairman of the Conservative Party, said to her party’s conference: "There's a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us – the Nasty Party." That tag owes something to the contrast between the public images of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair: the Iron Lady compared to Blair’s easy informality. In terms of policies it is not totally clear that the label was deserved. Poverty increased, but the poor were not denigrated. Unions were broken, but many felt the unions had become too powerful and selfish in their use of power. The state was reduced by privatising utilities, but the welfare state was not seriously diminished. Unemployment rose substantially, but inflation had to be brought under control. But whether deserved or not, I think May was right in her observation.
David Cameron also appears to have believed that the Conservatives had this image problem, and in opposition he aimed to create the idea of a modern compassionate Conservative Party. Hoodies were to be hugged, environmental goals embraced, and most tellingly of all, rather than deny the relevance of ‘society’, he wanted to create a ‘Big Society’. I am not concerned here about how real or radical these changes were, but instead just note that he felt a change of image was necessary to end the Conservative’s run of election defeats. The fact that they did not win the 2010 election outright perhaps suggests the strength and toxicity of the nasty brand.
What a difference a few years make. As the government finds it more and more difficult to cut government spending on goods and services, it aims austerity at welfare spending. There is plenty that has already happened, some well known, some not. As to the future, here is Paul Johnson of the IFS talking about the implications of the latest Autumn Statement. The scale of cuts he is talking about for welfare are huge (particularly if state pensions are ring fenced), yet they appear to be Osborne’s preferred option. The Conservative’s current Party Chairman and an influential MP have recently suggested restricting benefits for those with more than two children, to encourage ‘more responsible’ decisions about procreation. Never mind the impact this would have on those children.
Changes to welfare already introduced, together with falling real wages, have led to a huge rise in the use of food banks in the UK. Here is data from the Trussell Trust, one of the main operators of voluntary food banks. 346,992 people received a minimum of three days emergency food from Trussell Trust food banks in 2012-13, compared to 26,000 in 2008-09. Of those helped in 2012-13, 126,889 (36.6 percent) were children. The Red Cross is to start distributing food aid in the UK, for the first time since WWII. A letter from doctors to the British Medical Journal talks about a potential public health emergency involving malnutrition. It is undeniable that benefit changes are a big factor behind these developments, yet the government seems intent on hiding this fact.
Actions are of course more important than rhetoric, but rhetoric can help define image. It is undeniable that ministers, including the Prime Minister and Chancellor, have attempted to portray the poor and unemployed as personally responsible for their position due to some character failure. Even a proud institution like HM Treasury cannot resist being part of this process. (‘Hard-working families’ looks like going the same way as ‘taxpayers money’, becoming a routine slight against either the unemployed or the poor.) Both Cameron and Osborne will be too careful to emulate Romney’s 47% moment, but too many Conservative MPs appear to share the attitudes of some of those on the US right.
So what accounts for this U turn from compassion to disparagement? The recession is one answer, which has hardened social attitudes. The success of UKIP, the political wing of the majority of UK newspapers, is another.  Yet it seems incredible that a political calculation that appeared valid before 2010 can have been so completely reversed in just a few years. Even Theresa May, whose speech started this blog, has joined in on the act. There are those vans of course, but asking landlords to check the immigration status of tenants is an incredibly stupid and harmful policy. We will see in 2015 whether it pays to be nasty. 
Yet even if the strategy works in the short term, and even recognising that politicians often do questionable things to gain votes, this just seems a step too far. It is one thing to create hardship because you believe this is a necessary price to improve the system or reduce its cost. Perhaps you really believe that cutting the top rate of tax at the same time as cutting welfare will benefit everyone eventually. But it is quite another thing to try and deflect any criticism by unjustly blaming those who earn too little, or who are trying to find work. That just seems immoral.
I suspect Cameron as the Compassionate Conservative would have agreed. He would have also noted that, although nastiness might accord with voter sentiments today, at some point in the future voters in more generous times will have no problem forgetting this, and just remembering the Conservatives as the nasty party. As Christmas approaches, this tale from Charles Dickens seems apt.
 For those who are offended by this sentence, let me say this. There are two obvious explanations for the correlation between UKIPs policies and the views of the Telegraph, Mail and Sun. One involves the causality implied by the sentence and the post that it links to. The other is that newspapers just reflect the concerns of voters. But if the latter is true why do they (with the odd exception) just reflect the views of voters on the right, rather than those on the left? And why do the mistaken beliefs of voters tend to correlate with the impressions created by these newspapers, as I note here?
 Even if it does, I strongly suspect one casualty will be the LibDems. If their leader spoke out as Vince Cable has done, they might just have a chance of not being associated with these policies and attitudes. But he has not, and as a result the party is in serious danger of losing many votes and I suspect much of its activist base.