5 Oct 2011

Economy fragile yet Cameron seeks mantle of optimism

The night of the long credit card scissors will be forgotten in the annals of history though it will have a chapter in the spin doctor/political speechwriters’ manuals. I don’t think David Cameron ever meant to issue a call to the nation to cut up its storecards but that was what his speech said. “Misinterpretation” by media is what some of his aides call it. Bad drafting is probably nearer the mark. Anyway, it was redrafted in the end. The nation is drawing down its debt, he ended up saying – more a commentary than a call to action.

It mattered on the day because it showed you how ropey things are economically. If you’d seen the senior business people’s faces I saw last night as they heard about the morning’s headlines you would get a sense of the fragility of the economy and their frustration that stray words could tip it to an even worse place. It also shows you something about the fragility of David Cameron’s reputation for empathy. His leadership is clearly still an asset for the party and, boy, did you see and hear that with the signs and references in his speech. But his “empathy” score is not high and the leader’s team knew that the punters feeling squeezed by frozen pay, higher bills and much else wouldn’t take kindly to being lectured on how to run their personal debt by the son of privilege.

As for the rest of the speech itself … interesting to see David Cameron try to grab back the politically prized mantle of optimism. It was his and he knows many voters don’t share it – women in particular wondering if all the cuts really have a purpose or are just brutality for the sake of it. His times as Conservative leader have zig-zagged through different economic climates and so has his central message … his conference speeches often sound like strained attempts to link it all together – the man who said “let sunshine win the day” still wants to be seen as an optimist but if he used the old language he might look unhinged. The man whose 2010 manifesto was called “An Invitation to join the Government” stood today in front of banners proclaiming leadership and tried to marry the two.

He tested the modernisation of the party with a support for gay marriage. I estimated where I was sitting about half the people were clapping. I saw a few MPs stone-faced and not moving a hand. The biggest spontaneous applause came when he said “no” to the Euro and I spotted an arch moderniser shake his head witheringly.

The hall wasn’t anywhere near full and that included lots of corporate folk. I hear the official number of attendees was 3900 party members against 11600 journalists, coroporate folk, lobbyists and the rest. And it showed. But in broad terms you have to look at Margaret Thatcher at an equivalent point in her premiership in 1980. Many saw her as politically and socially unacceptable. The fringe swarmed with coded attacks. Under huge pressure to change tack she said she wasn’t for turning. David Cameron is under no such pressure and has ridden out a quiet conference with few thrills, only minor excitements and no dead.

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