DAVID Cameron this week made what American politicians call a “dog whistle” speech – which masqueraded as a statement for every citizen, but its message was for Conservative voters.
This week’s offering appeared as more of a pitch to Cameron’s right wing. The subject was radical welfare reform. It is a fundamentally important issue. But why this speech and why now?
Cameron, it appears, is seeking to sail into clear blue water just before the Westminster summer recess. Yet the party conference season, when prime ministers normally set out their stall to the party faithful, is ten weeks away.
In Blackpool or Brighton they can tackle the immediate political issues and deliver a little of the vision thing, thus demonstrating where the party and the country are going. Tony Blair did this to telling effect before Iraq derailed his premiership.
So why did Cameron need to blow his dog whistle now and speak not as prime minister but as leader of the Conservatives? Is his Education Secretary Michael Gove having too good a summer in the Commons tea room? Gove is judged as highly intelligent and equally ambitious. He made a significant education speech recently which, again, was not about coalition policy but the next general election.
Meanwhile, London mayor Boris Johnson plots his return to national politics and a route to No 10. So, in military parlance, senior Tories are on manoeuvres. Why? Is Cameron really so weak that a change in leader is a possibility? That does not seem plausible this side of the 2015 UK general election.
Cameron’s political sidekick is Chancellor George Osborne. This week we witnessed a very welcome U-turn on fuel tax, adding to a lengthy list. It is now hard to remember anything in the UK Budget that has not been reversed. Osborne’s previous reputation as the great political strategist seems somewhat shot.
A prime minister making incendiary speeches to appease the right wing. Cabinet ministers announcing new Tory policies left, right and centre. A chancellor driven by events, not leading them. And all before MPs’ summer break and the lead-in to the Tory party conference. Cameron must be in internal trouble.
Usually, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband are the leaders under pressure over the political summer. But this year Miliband can take his bucket and spade to the beach in good cheer. Labour’s stunning local election results across the UK relieved the pressure.
For Clegg, the position this summer looks similar to last. The UK Lib Dems have to demonstrate what they are in the UK coalition for. What is the difference they make?
A suggestion for Danny Alexander: next time you are on TV and being asked about a Cameron speech which is nothing to do with the coalition, say you disagree with it. The public like straight talking, and the Lib Dems are a separate political entity. Time to say so.
• Tavish Scott is Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland