It was the Prime Minister’s birthday on Tuesday and Boris Johnson was at hand to give him his dumps. It could have been carnage but Boris, being a scholar of the classics, knows that he who wields the sword never wears the crown and so he lauded David Cameron and showed his fealty to his party leader.
Helpfully then, the pressure from within the Conservative Party had eased – there were no major gaffes, embarrassments or cock-ups from his ministers or party mavericks. All he needed was to respond to Ed Miliband’s speech of last week, which for all its vacuousness had whipped up the media to expect some sort of gunfight at the OK Corral.
The problem for the Davey the Kid was that it was not a straight-shootin’ duel, for Rootin Tootin Ed had stolen so many of his clothes, including his patented “One Nation” repeater rifle.
It was not so much red versus blue, good versus bad, capitalist versus socialist – but more of a choice between fifty shades of pink with little to choose between them.
So Cameron had to be careful. He had to show that his Conservative Party was truly compassionate, was unifying rather than divisive and that Miliband’s dalliance with Disraeli was a charade. Better still, he needed to emphasise that Labour had been the source of so many of our woes, and yet to show his empathy with the electorate he had to do this in a manner that did not look mean-spirited, partisan and bullying.
Research has shown that audience response to Miliband’s speech amongst neutrals was warm and welcoming but when Miliband laid into the Prime Minister the acceptance levels dropped by more than half. The lesson is obvious – the public is turned off by the naming and shaming, and for Cameron to strike the right chord of compassionate and caring Conservatism he had to limit his attack.
So he did not make a spectacle of Miliband being a millionaire, with a £400,000 mortgage on a house worth £2.3 million; prefering debt finance for himself and the nation’s economic salvation – too rich, too aloof, too strange, to be in touch and empathise with the public. He did not berate Ed’s record as an Energy Minister that helped put our electricity bills through the roof
He put the personal attacks to the side and in so doing strengthened the core of his argument – for if we are indeed all in this together, attacking other politicians personally would jar and look nasty.
Instead, in the main, he talked about creating an “aspiration nation” – an admittedly rather clumsy rhyme – but one that provided a positivity the Conservatives badly needed so that we might believe that soon, hopefully next month, if not next week, we shall come out of the recession and this time stay out. Cameron needed to borrow from across the Atlantic, he needed to find Britain’s own audacity of hope, and by talking of helping people aspire to their dreams, to build stronger families and healthier communities he did just that.
There is, however, a weakness in the Prime Minister’s approach and it is this – there remains a poor understanding of the economic malaise that faces the country and how to deal with it. Many economic analysts and commentators are willing to back the Government but only because they think that Labour’s two Eds would be even worse.
David Cameron and George Osborne get it when it comes to the importance of reducing Britain’s annual spending deficit and consequently our national debt. What they don’t seem to get, though, is that it is not enough to cut public sector spending to the limited extent that they are doing. They need to create greater private sector growth, and to date they are only dancing round the margins of providing greater business incentives by loosening restrictions, reducing costs and overheads, and cutting taxes that will attract investment.
This is partly because the Liberal Democrats are opposing many of the reforms the Tories might want to make, it is partly because the European Union sets so many of our employment and business laws, and it is partly because David Cameron has an attraction to too many politically correct notions that won’t let him countenance changes that would create the economic growth he craves. Amending the smoking ban would revive English pubs, workers’ clubs and bingo halls; relaxing gambling restrictions would allow tourist-attracting casinos in run-down resorts and such like.
The reality is that while Cameron is sincere, indeed devout, in his belief in compassionate Conservatism, he has his fingers crossed that the economy will come good and save him so he can complete his right-on mission. In that respect he is the alter ego of Margaret Thatcher, who had a confidence and self-belief about the economic medicine she was dispensing to revive the sick man of Europe, but found it difficult to show her emotions or explain how she cared about other people.
The problem for Cameron is that without the economy coming good, he can show all the compassion he wants but it won’t be returned by the electorate – and that’s why Thatcher won three elections in a row and he’s not yet won any.