‘LET me finish the job.” As political rallying calls go, David Cameron’s message to the country from the Tory party conference in Manchester yesterday was a downbeat one.
And it hinges, ultimately, on whether the country believes he has been making a reasonable fist of things so far.
Mr Cameron would be unwise to count on this as a winning strategy for the next general election. His record at Number 10 is littered with far too many policy disasters – from the pasty tax to the bedroom tax, to the perpetually postponed economic recovery – for him to expect the call of “five more years” to elicit anything other than a groan.
It was clear from Mr Cameron’s speech yesterday – and George Osborne’s two days earlier – that the Tories’ economic medicine has been prescribed for the foreseeable future. Just as in the past three years, there is no spoonful of sugar to help it go down.
Does the Prime Minister really think continuity, in this economic context, is an attractive proposition for an austerity-battered Britain? Does he really think voters will queue up eagerly at the ballot box to put their ‘X’ next to the party promising more hard slog?
Yesterday’s speech shows clear signs of being written as a reaction to the one given last week at the Labour conference in Brighton by Ed Miliband. Mr Cameron seems to be hoping the country takes one look at the Labour leader and sees a left-wing ideologue who is not in tune with their values. They will then, according to this theory, opt to stick with a Conservative party occupying the more familiar centre ground.
In this sense Mr Cameron is hoping for a re-run of the 1992 general election, where he cut his political teeth as a young Tory adviser. But his plan to present himself as a sensible John Major alternative to Mr Miliband’s left-wing Neil Kinnock is asking a lot of a British public.
It assumes, for one thing, that a political calculation based on the old memes of left-wing and right-wing will trump the voters’ weariness with the Chancellor’s age of austerity. Although there are undeniably some promising signs in the economy, Britain is far from a recovery, and even further from the kind of economic growth that would start to improve the lives of everyone, and not just the wealthiest in the London property bubble.
Put simply, more Cameron means more pain. This is a novel campaign strategy, and depends on a rather curious view of the instincts of the British public.
If the recovery remains sluggish and uneven, the UK general election that will be upon us in 20 months time may well turn out to be a campaign to pick the least worst candidate for PM, rather than someone we can confidently predict can deliver a more prosperous future.
It is early days, granted. But Mr Cameron is deluding himself if, at this juncture, he thinks the country will be grateful for his offer of more of the same.
Tolls could be worth road testing
When the SNP came to power in 2007 promising to abolish bridge tolls, the party tapped into a very Scottish belief that some of the fundamentals of our lives – such as getting from A to B – should be as free as the air we breathe.
This is a beguiling view of the world. But it should not stop us considering ideas that constitute a practical and efficient way of getting things done at a time when cash for public projects is understandably scarce.
Road tolls is a good example of such an idea. The Institute of Civil Engineers Scotland has suggested it is time to look again at this subject, and it cites some very good reasons for doing so.
Scotland’s roads need improving and the cost of these projects is borne by every taxpayer, regardless of whether or not they own a car or – if they are a driver – they only get behind the wheel for the weekly shop and the occasional family visit.
Road tolls – levied under a flat fee or pay-as-you-go basis – would have the virtue of having the cost of roads met by the people who use them, rather than the population as a whole.
Such a system is commonplace in many parts of the world, and is accepted as such by locals and visitors alike. As the UK government examines the case for a new toll road in England – the A14 in Cambridgeshire – are they really a no-no here in Scotland?
The institute is realistic enough to accept that road rolls “would face significant public and political barriers” in Scotland where the political climate – of free prescriptions, free university tuition and free eye tests – mitigates against contributory fees.
But perhaps it is time we looked at such ideas with more of an open mind.