Saturday, October 13, 2012

Deeply disingenuous, but Cameron has the final say

Seven years ago, the Conservative Party faithful gathered in Blackpool for what most observers expected would be a leadership stand-off between right-wing former council house boy David Davis and veteran Europhile Ken Clarke.

That was, of course, before a young MP by the name of David Cameron came along and tore up the script, delivering a speech without notes that electrified the party and made them believe that, with him in charge, they could finally put an end to their losing streak.

That all seems a long time ago now.  Although he did become Prime Minister, Mr Cameron did not turn out to be quite the winner his party had hoped for, and this week’s conference in Birmingham had an element of seven-year-itch about it.

So notwithstanding the fact that his speaking-without-notes routine has since been successfully imitated by other political leaders, it was perhaps no surprise that Mr Cameron eschewed it this week in favour of a traditional, scripted address.

It was, by some distance, the most serious speech of the conference season and indeed of Mr Cameron’s political career to date.

His talk of an “hour of reckoning” for the British economy was a far cry from the David Cameron of a few years back who exhorted us in a previous conference speech to “let sunshine win the day.”  

If that was possibly the worst Cameron soundbite ever coined, someone had clearly been working on them in the run-up to Wednesday’s address.

“The party of one notion:  borrowing” and “I’m not here to defend privilege, but to spread it” may not be in quite the same league as “the Lady’s not for turning”  but they are likely to stick longer in the memory than anything either of the other two party leaders have come up with in the past three weeks.

But for all its statesmanlike qualities and oratorical panache, it was, however, a deeply disingenuous speech by the Prime Minister.

Nowhere was this more so than when Mr Cameron sought to claim that only the Conservatives had ‘protected’ the NHS from spending cuts, saying:  “Be in no doubt:  this is the party of the NHS and that’s the way it’s going to stay,”

Leaving aside, for a moment, the fact that the government’s Health and Social Care Act has actually turned the NHS into no more than a brand, the situation on the ground is very different.

The reality, in my own local health trust at any rate, is that a fifth of the workforce is to be sacrificed over the next four years to meet the government’s spending squeeze.

In terms of political positioning, the core message of Mr Cameron’s speech was in its appeal to the aspirational voters who previously helped deliver election success to both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

“They call us the party of the better-off.  No, we are the party of the want to be better off,” he said in another of those catchy soundbites.

But the truth of the matter is that, in the public sector at any rate, there are tens of thousands of “want to be better offs” who have simply had the rug cut from under them - a disproportionate number of those being in the North-East.

If the unspoken assumption behind this is that no-one with any genuine aspiration actually goes into the public sector in the first place, then that betrays how little Mr Cameron knows about the way most of us live.

The conference season ends with the battle line starting to be drawn for an election which, on the evidence of the past few weeks, is shaping up to be much more of a two-way fight than the last one.

Ed Miliband’s speech, with his audacious bid to grab the One Nation mantle of the old-style Tory moderates was, once again, the boldest of the three, while Nick Clegg’s, at a time when he needed to put clear yellow water between himself and the Tories, was sadly forgettable.

Mr Cameron’s was the most sombre, but perhaps more importantly in terms of shaping the political agenda going forward, also the last.

It’s purely an accident of history that always lets the Tory leader have the final say in this three-week battle for political supremacy, but this year, at least, it was one he took full advantage of.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Can 'Red Ed' really command the centre ground?

Twelve months ago, Ed Miliband delivered what I described at the time as probably the most courageous party conference speech by any major political leader over the course of the last two decades.

The Liverpool address, in which he admitted that New Labour had not done enough to change the “values” of the British economy, amounted to no less than an attempt to overturn the political consensus that has been maintained by successive governments of right and left since the 1980s.

This year’ s speech, delivered 30 miles down the road in Manchester, was no less audacious - but whereas then Mr Miliband appeared to be adopting a distinctly leftish analysis of the country’s problems, this year saw him resorting to one of Tony Blair’s favourite pastimes – stealing the Tories’ clothes.

And it is perhaps in that apparent contradiction – between the leftward-lurching ‘Red Ed’ of 12 months ago and the ‘One Nation’ Labourite of this week – that Mr Miliband’s problem lies.

You cannot fault the Labour leader’s instincts in seeking to place himself and his party firmly in the centre ground of British politics. That is, after all, where elections are invariably won and lost.

And Prime Minister David Cameron can surely only blame himself for giving his opponent the opportunity to indulge in a spot of political cross-dressing.

By instinct a One Nation, compassionate Conservative himself, he has allowed himself since entering Downing Street to be blown off course by an angry right-wing rump who cannot forgive him for failing to win the election outright and thereby forcing them into a Coalition with those ghastly Lib Dems.

The past 18 months have seen a grisly procession of rightward shifts, from his backbenchers’ piece-by-piece demolition of Nick Clegg’s plans for political reform, to a reshuffle that saw a climate change sceptic put in charge of environment policy.

So the time was surely ripe this week for Mr Miliband to make a play for the centrist-minded voters that Mr Cameron appears to have all-but-abandoned in his desperation to keep the Boris Johnson fan club at bay.

And there was much about the labour leader’s ‘One Nation’ pitch that rang true, in particular his desire to focus attention and resources on the ‘forgotten 50pc’ who don’t go to university and his determination to speak up as much for the ‘squeezed middle’ as those living in poverty.

I was also impressed by the evident passion with which he spoke up, not for the unions, but for the Union – under threat as never before as a result of Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s independence referendum plans.

Mr Miliband is right that only the Labour Party can save it. The Tories and Lib Dems are a busted flush north of the border, and only the Labour Party will ever have the strength in Scotland to defeat Mr Salmond’s nationalists.

Above all, the speech demonstrated that Mr Miliband has the potential to give the Labour Party the clear sense of direction it has lacked since Mr Blair left office in 2007.

Gordon Brown should have done this, and had the opportunity to do so, but for all his talk about restoring the party’s cherished ‘var-lues’, his much-vaunted Real Labour – or was it True Labour? – never really achieved lift-off.

Now we have One Nation Labour, which, if rather short on specifics at this stage, at least sounds as if it might finally resolve the vexed question of what follows New Labour.

If Mr Miliband is to ensure it is more than a slogan, he now needs to spend the 12 months between this and the next party conference putting some policy flesh on the bones.

There was widespread agreement, even among Tory commentators, that Tuesday’s speech was a bravura performance by the Labour leader, a brilliantly-crafted and passionate address that has the potential to be a political game-changer.

But the nub of Ed Miliband’s problem, as the former Tory MP turned political blogger Jerry Hayes put it rather crudely this week, is that he genuinely is the most left-wing Labour leader since Michael Foot.

The really big question is whether, the light of this, Mr Miliband can come to be seen by the voters as a credible occupant of the political centre-ground in the way that both Mr Blair and Mr Cameron were before him.

And on that score, the jury is still out.