Is Britain ready for an optimistic Prime Minister?
David Cameron is a sunny-side-up politician. At his first party conference as leader, he declared, ‘Let optimism beat pessimism. Let sunshine win the day.’ This attitude infused his approach to policy as well as politics. His economic doctrine was all about ‘sharing the proceeds of growth’. George Osborne, Cameron’s chief strategist, liked to stress that it was imperative that the Conservatives didn’t ‘sound like the old man on the park bench who says things were better in 1985, or 1955, or 1855. We have got to be the party that embraces the future.’
Then came the financial crisis. With banks collapsing, sunny rhetoric would have been horribly out of place. Cameron had to change both his course and his tone. And he managed it reasonably well: the opennecked look was replaced by sober-coloured ties and the ‘proceeds of growth’ by ‘the age of austerity’. In the process, though, much of what made him a new kind of Conservative was lost. By the time of the first election debate, he sounded uncomfortably like the old man on the park bench.
Even after making it to Downing Street, Cameron has remained wary of sunshine politics. He has prioritised reassurance about the economy over the ‘vision thing’. The furrowed brow has remained his favoured public expression. But some of those around the Prime Minister now argue that 2012 calls for the return of the more upbeat Cameron — that the opportunities afforded by the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics must not be missed. How to balance this optimism with economic realism is what No. 10 is currently trying to work out.
A Conservative strategist concedes that there is a risk of optimism ‘appearing out of touch’ when so many of the economic numbers remain grim. And No. 10, according to one secretary of state, has made it clear that the first Cabinet minister to mention green shoots of recovery will be ‘taken outside and shot’.
Things no longer look quite so bleak as they did before Christmas, when there were fears that the euro was about to collapse: that problem seems to have gone from acute to chronic. But worse economic news may still come this year. There is, for instance, mounting concern inside Downing Street that Greece’s failure to agree a deal with its creditors will lead to a disorderly default, which in turn could trigger a deep, Europe-
wide recession. Any talk of sunlit uplands will therefore be accompanied by an emphasis on how the coalition is keeping the country safe during an international debt storm. Ministers will also emphasise measures to ease the cost of living.
Senior Tories nevertheless remain hopeful that economic confidence will begin to return this year. They have tracked people’s view of the economy against inflation and found a direct correlation: the higher inflation is, the more people think that the economy is on the wrong track. With the effects of the VAT rise and the oil shock working their way out of the system, inflation is expected
No. 10 has made clear that the first Cabinet minister to mention green shoots of recovery will be taken outside and shot to fall rapidly this year. It’s already a whole percentage point lower than it was in September, and in December, according to figures released this week, it fell faster than it has done for three years. By summer, if all goes as Downing Street would like, it could be back below 3 per cent. This might be particularly helpful with women voters, whose turn against the Tories No. 10 now believes had more to do with high prices than with spending cuts.
Cameron’s dilemma over optimism is the thread that connects three other issues of the moment: not just the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, but also the prospect of a referendum on Scottish independence, now likely in 2014. In his letter to Nick Clegg pushing for a new royal yacht, Michael Gove argued that the ‘celebrations must — despite, indeed perhaps because of, these austere times — go beyond those of previous Jubilees’. Yet the government remains acutely sensitive to the idea of doing anything that could be deemed extravagant or out of touch.
When it comes to the Olympics, there is no question of austerity: the staging agreement with the International Olympic Committee wouldn’t allow it. That doesn’t stop Cabinet ministers worrying how the whole thing will look. One has spoken to me of voters fuming in traffic while chief executives speed past in Zil lanes to Olympic stadiums. But others offer sound reasons to expect a triumph. The BBC, the Olympic broadcaster, will be pumping out positive coverage. Most newspapers are inclined to follow suit. The Department of Culture, Media & Sport reckons Britain will finish third in the medals table. Those close to Cameron hope that the Olympics can serve as a vivid illustration for his arguments about how the United Kingdom can compete in the 21st century.
Then there is the matter of keeping the UK in one piece to compete in future Olympiads, by winning a referendum on Scottish independence.Those involved in the government’s planning of its pro-union campaign are confident that they have the economic case worked out. They also believe that they can raise doubts about whether an independent Scotland would be able to join the European Union; the Spanish are not keen to set a precedent for regions seceding from an existing EU member and then immediately acceding to the EU. What government strategists admit they lack is an emotional argument — a defence of the Union that goes beyond warning the Scots that they’ll be worse off outside it. I understand that developing such an emotionally resonant defence is a responsibility that the Prime Minister has taken on himself.
If Cameron is to make this appeal successfully, he’ll have to exude a sense of optimism about Britishness and the future of the union. He will have to be the ray of sunshine to Alex Salmond’s Scotsman with a grievance.
‘Johnson, you’re a ruthless bastard.
I like that in a deputy.’
SPECTATOR.CO.UK/COFFEEHOUSE Sunlight on No. 10…
the spectator | 21 january 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk Charles Moore
In Thought for the Day, of all places, the weird bitterness behind much Scottish nationalism was revealed. On Wednesday, John Bell of the Iona Community complained of the suffering of the Scots and asked people in the south-east of England how they would like it if their history books had been ‘written in Aberdeen’. We should not have minded a bit. Indeed, though I cannot immediately recall a schoolbook from Aberdeen, the quantity of excellent British educational material coming out of Scotland — think of Collins in Glasgow — always far exceeded the relative proportions of the UK population. So did the writers —Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan, Arthur Conan Doyle (in his historical novels) — who made vivid our island story. Lord Reith (born in Stonehaven) created, through the BBC in its early days, a Scottish version of Britishness which dominated the south-east just as much as anywhere else. John Bell thinks that the Bible insists that the Scots must be ‘a distinct people in a distinct land’. Would the BBC give airtime to a Thought for the Day which claimed that God is an Englishman?
The other day, I bumped into John (Selwyn) Gummer at a dinner and we began, as many do just now, to talk about the film The Iron Lady. He is a great admirer of Meryl Streep, who plays Margaret Thatcher, for all the usual reasons, but also because Ms Streep is Mrs Gummer. She is married to Don Gummer, an American, and, according to John Selwyn, all Gummers are of the same ilk. In 2010, John took the title of Lord Deben, when he was made a peer. His brother Peter has long been Lord Chadlington. Ms Streep, who has been married to Don since 1978, obstinately sticks by her uneuphonious maiden name. Why does no one want to go by the good old Suffolk name of Gummer?
Ihave always thought it was a bad idea for the left, from its own point of view, to go on and on about the sinking of the Belgrano in the Falklands War. This is confirmed by the reaction to the film. A friend attended a packed showing in central London. There is a scene — which did not actually take place — in which Mrs Thatcher and the generals gather in the HQ in Northwood and push ships about on maps, as in second world war films. The question is what to do about the Belgrano. ‘Sink it!’ hisses Mrs Thatcher. I think this is supposed to shock with its ruthlessness, but in fact the audience burst into cheering.
In a panel discussion on the film in which Norman Tebbit, Virginia Bottomley, John Whittingdale and I took part, talk turned to what a good opera the life of Mrs Thatcher would make (an idea floated in Notes 14 June 2008). I suddenly realised that the aria of ‘The Lady’s not for turning’ would be ‘La donna è immobile’.
Rather belatedly, we have caught up with the cult Danish detective programme The Killing. It is wonderful, and I do not regret devoting 20 hours of my life to 20 November days in rainy Copenhagen. What others may understandably have missed, however, is that the series is a savage indictment of the state funding of political parties. One reason it is so difficult to catch the killer is that the crime is all mixed up with a car belonging to the party of the mayoral candidate Troels Hartmann and the state-subsidised flat in which the first of the gruesome assaults that end in murder are committed. Because a fleet of cars and this expensive accommodation are available to a large number of party people, it is tremendously hard for the police to work out who did what when and where. If Hartmann had had to buy the flat with his own money, this confusion would have been avoided, making the series roughly half as long. Indeed, it is possible that poor young Nanna Birk Larsen would never have been raped and murdered in the first place. Yet still Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the
Committee for Priggishness in Public Life, ploughs on, calling for state funding to be introduced here. It cannot be said too often that government ownership of political parties is a far greater corruption than the sale of a few peerages to unappealing businessmen.
After I recently reviewed a biography of Hewlett Johnson, the pro-Stalin ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury from the 1930s to the 1960s, I received an interesting email from a man who had worked in what was then called the ‘guided weapons’ industry in the 1950s. He had helped, he told me, on developing an ‘active’ (as opposed to ‘heat-seeking’) missile which had a radar dish on its front. It sent out signals and received an echo so that it could find its target. Wittily, this missile (which was never deployed) was called the ‘Red Dean’. I wonder if, when later secrets are exposed, we shall find plans for other missiles constructed on these ‘echo’ principles called ‘Michael Foot’, ‘Monsignor Kent’, ‘Lord Stansgate’ etc.
Amore admirable Dean of Canterbury was Victor de Waal, who is still alive. One of his distinctions is to be the father of Edmund de Waal. It was by being brought up in the Deanery at Canterbury that Edmund first acquired the aesthetic attentiveness which helped him become a leading potter, and later to write his fascinating bestseller about his Jewish Ephrussi ancestors and their art, The Hare With Amber Eyes. Because of his clerical connection, I invited Edmund de Waal to speak to the AGM of the Rectory Society, of which I am chairman, and he kindly agreed. The meeting starts at 6 for 6.30 in St Paul’s Knightsbridge, Wilton Place, SW1, on Tuesday 31 January. Entry costs £20 for non-members.
As I write, I am just off to take part in the BBC’s Question Time. For this, which involves a lot of prep and travelling, in this case to Shrewsbury, I am to be paid £150. I first took part in the programme in, I think, 1985, and my memory is that I was paid £150 then. The BBC director-general, on the other hand, is paid approximately ten times what his predecessor received at that time.
the spectator | 21 january 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk