Cameron on the back foot


IT WAS inevitable that David Cameron’s conference speech would be largely defensive and sombre. Midterm blues and abysmal poll ratings – it could be no other way. And the Tory leader’s “one-nation” colours had been stolen from him by a surprisingly stirring Ed Miliband last week, a tour de force hard to compete with. That, and the prime minister’s downbeat central message of failure.

“I know you are asking whether the plan is working,” he told delegates in Birmingham on Wednesday, “and here is the truth, the damage is worse than we thought, and it’s taking longer than we hoped.”

There was a defensiveness too in his insistence that the party is not the party of the rich, insensitive to the lives and concerns of ordinary mortals. “The party has a heart but we don’t like wearing it on our sleeve,” he said, acknowledging that allowed others to misrepresent it. But, qui s’excuse, s’accuse – apologising is tantamount to an admission. The Tories, he insisted somewhat desperately, are the party of the “want-to-be-better-off”, of the “aspiration nation”. Slogans that hardly have the street appeal of Labour’s hijacked “one-nation”, but then Disraeli’s line was anyway historically largely the catch-cry of the now-despised Tory wets.

“I’m not here to defend privilege,” he said, “I’m here to spread it.” Substitute “wealth” for “privilege”, and it sounds awfully like that socialist staple, “redistribution”. But, be assured, that is not what Cameron has in mind.

The rebranding exercise was not one, however, which was going to reflect a shift of heart on key aspects of economic strategy. There was a Thatcherite quality to his insistence that deficit-cutting is a “moral challenge”. He gave little idea of what he intends to do in the second half of his term beyond completing projects in hand. No question, he said, of the economic Plan B sought by Labour in response to evidence that cuts are driving Britain into recession. New borrowing just drives up interest rates, he insisted. And Labour he painted as “one-notion”; borrowing, borrowing, borrowing.

Regrettably, Britain’s place in the EU was barely touched on by the prime minister. Backbench Tories are increasingly insistent on a guarantee from him of an in/out referendum after the next election. But Cameron has wisely dodged making any commitment beyond saying that he wants to renegotiate the relationship, and that any resulting referendum will not be in-or-out.

In truth, as Philip Stephens observes in the Financial Times, Britain, “albeit mostly by choice, is sliding fast into Europe’s second division”. Its increasing detachment is a serious concern for Ireland, not just because it is a reliable ally much of the time, but because the uncertainty feeds fears that Britain may actually be on the way out. Its exit would restore the sort of economic and political barriers between the two countries that recent years have thankfully put behind us. A little reassurance from the Tory leader would be most welcome.

No mention in his speech either of his coalition partners the Lib/Dems. Perhaps he too regards the relationship, as Albert Reynolds once put it of the Fianna Fáil-PD coalition, as “a temporary little arrangement”.

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