THE MAIN message of David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party conference today – in so far as it can be deemed from advance briefings – will be an appeal to British steadfastness.
The Prime Minister will say that Britain has reached an hour of reckoning and that we must not flinch from the medicine of austerity required, in his view, to cure our economic ills. It will be an appeal to British bottle and British backbone. But will it work?
There is a limit to how many times Mr Cameron can play the “national government” card. It had some value in the immediate aftermath of the last general election, when the creation of the coalition was presented as politicians putting country first and party second. But with that coalition now plainly dysfunctional, and with Britain’s debt mountain actually growing, for Mr Cameron and George Osborne to issue a “steady as she goes” message and expect the country to comply is simply not credible. For one thing, the very foundations of this government – the Tories’ relationship with the Liberal Democrats – cannot fill the average citizen with any confidence. This is a marriage where the first bloom of romance has long gone and the couple are now at the crockery-throwing stage. It cannot be long before the divorce lawyers are called in.
It may be that Mr Cameron has something up his sleeve today that will surprise us all, and perhaps buy him some time. If so, it will have to be a political innovation of some magnitude if it is to dent the cynicism about this administration that can be detected across the country at large.
In a sense, Mr Cameron’s clothes have been stolen by Ed Miliband. In his Labour leadership speech in Manchester last week, Mr Miliband made an appeal for national solidarity, stealing the Tories One Nation rhetoric.
After speeches from Mr Osborne this week rejecting a mansion tax and defending the cut to the 50p tax rate – while at the same time promising more welfare cuts and suggesting workers surrender their employment rights for company shares – any attempt by Mr Cameron to present himself as a One Nation Conservative risks being met with mirth.
So far, this has been a conference that speaks to the Tory faithful, and not the country in general. Button after button has been pressed – witness the time and attention given to “burglar-bashing” – in an attempt to pacify a Conservative Party that has grown restless with having a Prime Minister in Downing Street who cannot – some say will not – give full voice to what they recognise as traditional Tory values.
A party of government, in conference mode, must speak to the country, not tickle the bellies of the faithful. The gathering in Birmingham looks very much like an attempt to calm nerves, shore up divisions and hope for the best. The result so far has been underwhelming.
Merkel’s efforts to be applauded
IT IS not unusual for politicians to fly into hostile territory, speak some warm words of reassurance and then fly out again under high security. We are used to seeing presidents and prime ministers in the dust of Afghanistan, getting some personal experience of the consequences on the ground of the decisions they take at home from behind the comfort of a desk.
There was more than a whiff of this kind of mission when German chancellor Angela
Merkel flew into Athens yesterday. Greece is a country poised
on the brink of social and
economic collapse, and Mrs Merkel is the politician most closely associated with the austerity package that the European Central Bank deems necessary for Greeks, if they are to stay within the eurozone.
At times yesterday in Athens, the body language of the principal players looked strained. Given the history of Greek-German relations within living memory, and the view among some Greeks that they are being ground under the heel of a
German-dominated European banking system, perhaps that is not surprising. There were scuffles and unrest in Athens as protestors vented their anger at what they believe Mrs Merkel represents.
The German chancellor should, however, be congratulated for making this trip. By doing so she acknowledged that Greece is not just a pawn in an economists’ chess game – it is a sovereign country with a sovereign people who feel very much robbed of their opportunity to control their own destiny.
But Mrs Merkel is trying to do the right thing. This is the woman who is keeping the euro afloat, a job that is becoming harder and harder to do.