Cameron must show his mettle
This is a guest post by Zach Johnstone:
The parliamentary hiatus that is ‘conference season’ means different things to different people. For some it is the apex of the political calendar; a time for jingoistic sentiment and reverence of a party’s achievements to date. For others, it serves as little more than a tired formality concerned less with policy formulation than with haughty image-polishing and transient poll rating surges.
Yet whichever perception holds the most validity, with the Conservative Party conference due to get underway today there is a palpable sense that, in offering such uninspiring performances at conference, both the Liberal Democrats and Labour missed the chance to steal a march on the Tories. For the former, the mission was to show that tuition fee U-turns and political evisceration in May’s local council elections are problems from which the party can recover. For the latter, it was no less than to demonstrate to the voting public that there exists a credible and coherent alternative to the Coalition.
In the event, neither succeeded.
Miliband’s speech in particular was as disjointed as any conference speech in living memory. Even if Ed professes to be “up for the fight”, on the evidence of his shadow cabinet’s reluctance to come out in his defence it seems as though few in the Labour ranks share the sentiment. Yet setting aside for a moment the delivery of the speech, the sheer lack of content will – or at least should – resonate amongst any Labour members with designs on victory in 2015. In well over 5,000 carefully drafted and re-drafted words, Miliband offered no grand strategy whatsoever for tackling the deficit or for rebalancing the budget. Instead, those in attendance were treated to a partisan diatribe denouncing the proposed abolition of the 50p tax rate, the anticipated cuts to corporation tax and, well, just about any mechanism of growth that has been (or is expected to be) introduced by the Coalition.
The ramifications of this are yet to be fully played out; party conferences, especially those that fall years before the next general election, are not steadfast indicators of a party’s fate. They do, however, offer an insight into the integrity, intellectual capability and capacity for leadership of a party’s leader.
What, then, of the Conservative party?
David Cameron will arrive in Manchester today to find the bar set unprecedentedly low in all of these regards. The initiative is certainly there to be seized; the Coalition has not yet, as many predicted, provided an insurmountable hindrance to the Conservatives’ pre-election vision of change (with the notable exception of the NHS). The parties have demonstrated a capacity for cooperation that few foresaw in the early weeks of governmental matrimony that has led to a cogent and extensive vision for the next four years. It is for Cameron to continue this positive trajectory and make the case for cuts, to articulate the thinking behind the launch of free schools, to lend his unwavering support to IDS’ under-threat welfare reforms and to breathe new confidence into the economy. The Prime Minister will be sharply judged on his grasp of the macro issues.
Just as importantly, however, Cameron must ensure that his vision is relevant to those of all walks of life – if it is important that ordinary citizens know that the modern incarnation of the Conservative Party is on their side, it is equally crucial that businesses feel similarly reassured. On both fronts, this is something he surely cannot do without dealing directly with Britain’s membership of the EU. Brussels’ announcement that the UK will soon be forced to accommodate the claims of “welfare tourists” is emblematic of the resentment many feel towards the imposition of directives and diktats from EU institutions, whilst Barroso’s intransigent determination to impose a tax on financial transactions – the so-called Tobin tax - is one that would hit the UK’s unusually large financial sector with singular brutality. It is on such immediate and pressing problems – the micro issues - that Cameron must also elucidate his government’s position.
For Charles Moore, matters are even more pressing. Cameron should be looking to the party conference as nothing less than the platform from which to “offer a way out” of economic and political disaster – to give it to us straight and to fill the void in the political market left by those politicians who could “talk both truthfully yet encouragingly about hard times.” On this, however, I am far from persuaded. Moore, to all intents and purposes, is still talking in terms of image: the delivery of the speech must be laced with optimism and hope, something to which he refers as no less than “a genuine duty of leadership”. And perhaps in a sense he is right. But even if he hints at it, he doesn’t fully touch on what truly matters: what must come from Cameron’s speech more than sanguinity is a reassertion of the values that put him in Downing Street in the first place. Just as Thatcher’s neo-liberalism characterised the 1980s and Blair’s Third Way monopolised the early-2000s, Cameron must show his mettle by detailing the overarching direction in which he seeks to take the UK.
He must offer, quite simply, that which discernibly passed both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg by: substance.
Part of doing so is to resist punctuating his speech with digs at Labour’s expense: respect will be won or lost on the strength of the Conservative vision for both economic recovery and societal improvement, not on its proclivity for dishing out vitriol. It is for Labour members to worry about Labour...
...and worry they should. For if the party’s dismal conference did not portend electoral calamity, it certainly demonstrated that political purgatory awaits the Labour Party unless it begins to offer a viable alternative to the Coalition’s broad-based reform agenda, and wastes no time in doing so. With Ed at the helm, this is frankly a reality that is becoming more and more difficult to envisage.