A journalist's view of the Cameron speech
It is hardly going to come as a great surprise that I thought David Cameron's speech was excellent. Nor that the feedback from my Conservative colleagues, was also very good. So I have been looking at the press and on the net to see what people whose support for DC cannot be taken for granted have been saying. I thought the following piece in The Times by Camilla Cavendish was very good and very interesting.
CAMERON BOUNCE 2: REFRESHINGLY SPIN-FREE
It has been a strange two weeks in the bubble of Blackpool and Bournemouth. You may think there that should have been a plural but it feels like the same bubble, not two different bubbles. The journalists, the quangocrats, the fringe speakers, are largely the same throughout. Only the politicians are different, and, of course, we the media will kindly filter their utterances for you.
It is impossible to know what voters have made, if anything, of these conferences. But there has been a profound mood shift in the media. And although anything I say now must be taken with a health warning, trapped as I am in the airless bubble, I wonder whether this mood change may soon start to be reflected in the electorate.
Proximity to power dulls the wits. That is the only explanation I can offer for why Gordon Brown’s speech generated so many positive headlines on Monday of last week; although 36 hours later almost every journalist I spoke to had privately come to see it as barren and dishonest. Concerted spin in a crowded space – cramming the media together in these conference centres always ups the chances of similar headlines – combined with the infectious self-confidence of an able and united Cabinet somehow made it easier to swallow some of Mr Brown’s lines.
By the end of last week, almost no one was saying any longer that Mr Brown was a conviction politician. Labour seemed intellectually exhausted. And an unattractive streak of ruthlessness was showing through.
Which is why Sir John Major’s remarks two days ago scored a palpable hit. What a turnaround. One minute Mr Brown is taking tea with Baroness Thatcher and briefing the press that he is wrapping himself in “Tory clothes” – the ones we thought no one wanted to wear any more. The next minute he is handbagged by Sir John for telling the press that he is pulling 1,000 men out of Iraq with no explanation as to whether he is risking the lives of those who remain, and no regard for the House of Commons whose primacy he recently promised to respect. The BBC gave Sir John a full ten minutes in which to vent his restrained fury.
There is more to come in this vein. A furious debate broke out at an emergency meeting at the City of London Corporation on Tuesday, after its leaders were told by Government to agree to commit £400 million to fund the Crossrail scheme immediately – apparently in order to provide another positive preelection announcement. They agreed – listen for the sound of gongs dropping soon – but these ploys are starting to backfire. The Prime Minister’s penchant for calling certain journalists in the early hours of the morning and taking them to task does not look terribly prime ministerial. It is irritating some in the press corps who thought that he was bigger than this.
By the time David Cameron got up to give his conference speech yesterday, it had become an awful lot easier to present him as a man of integrity in a world of spin. That was not the main theme of his speech, but it was a clear subtext. The Old Politics is failing, he said. And he explained why: top-down statism has not wrought the improvements that everyone seeks. This was an argument for limited government, not merely another shopping list.
The greatest irony of Mr Brown’s electioneering is that it has galvanised the Conservative Party into a rare semblance of unity. It has also finally pushed them out of Phase 1 – the thinking and “rebranding” phase, where they had become becalmed in a welter of policy reviews – into Phase 2 of finalising hard policy. Even four weeks ago, party stalwarts were still having to urge Mr Cameron to accept that he had succeeded in getting people to listen and could move on. Mr Brown’s move has expeditiously forced him on to harder turf.
There is another danger for Mr Brown too. If he keeps up his new brand of manipulative populism laced with spin, he will start to look more and more like Tony Blair. Yet one of the main reasons for his popularity is not being Tony Blair. The Brown bounce is, at least partly, the “not-Blair” bounce.
It is fashionable to say that the Conservatives will be better placed to win an election next spring, when they have had more time to shape their policies and when a slowing economy may have taken the shine off the new Prime Minister. I am no longer sure that this is correct. An election would silence most of the rebel Tory voices. It would also help the Conservatives to paper over some remaining intellectual tensions: between the desire to give doctors and teachers more autonomy, for example, and the desire to direct them in certain ways.
This short period has exposed, yet again, what a ruthless PR machine this Government operates. Labour has been skilled at suppressing internal dissent since it crushed the Militant Tendency in the 1980s. The Conservatives, in contrast, can’t even stop Theresa May sounding scared on Any Questions. If a Conservative leader had made the extravagant spending pledges that Mr Brown made last week, Labour would have costed those pledges and had a press release out within an hour, demanding to know how they would be paid for. The Conservatives didn’t even run the numbers.
Yet opportunism is looking more and more absurd. In its attempts to rubbish George Osborne’s plans to tax nondomiciles, the Treasury has been rushing out figures that it has strangely never been able to find before. Its latest rebuttal, yesterday, came with this small print: “All figures are best estimates . . . need to be treated with a great deal of caution . . . due to the lack of available data.”
An election is still Mr Brown’s to lose. But he is looking more vulnerable than he could have imagined two weeks ago.