It is one of the quirks of our political culture that that the last thing that happened is the only thing that ever happened. Thus, over the course of a few days it is entirely plausible and consistent for Theresa May to condemn immigration in terms that left business leaders aghast and even some of the Tory faithful shifting uncomfortably in their seats; for Jeremy Hunt to declare that that tax credits would encourage the British to work as hard as the Chinese; for George Osborne to extend the franchise to corporations and then for the man who leads their party to declare an assault on poverty and vow to end discrimination.
This was Cameron of old, the hoodie and husky hugging Compassionate Conservative, boldly setting out a vision for the future of Britain carefully crafted by Tory strategists to appear to offer something to everyone. After all, with the bake-off final high in the nation’s consciousness, who could argue with the idea of a Greater Britain? Albeit one where income inequality among the highest in OECD countries, where livings standards are undergoing a “prolonged squeeze,” where the young are disproportionately suffering the results of both the global economic crash and the policy choice of austerity that followed it and where, after all the rhetoric and all the cuts, the deficit has widened this year.
But in essence, this was not a political or an economic speech, it was a cultural one. The core of Cameron’s message was that with the recession over and with the task of bringing the country’s finances under control well advanced, it is time to turn to the task of reimagining society. In choosing this tack, Cameron’s strategists are attempting the unenviable task of responding to Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a more decent politics while at the same time shoring up their base. It is a tricky manoeuvre and one that Cameron pulled off in the eyes of the pundits. Some of whom went so far as to call his speech “Blairite,” presumably meaning it as a compliment.
There are two significant problems with the approach that Cameron has taken. The first is that Blairism and the neoliberal economic consensus which underpinned have both been consigned to the dustbin of history, the latter by the deepest recession in history, the former by the fact that the convergence of political parties on the centre ground alienates the base.
The second problem is that even if what Cameron is attempting turns out to be possible, it will be far more difficult to persuade the nation that the Conservative Party is capable of social and cultural inclusiveness than it was for Blair to persuade business leaders and global markets that New Labour were capable of financial responsibility. Financial responsibility can be easily measured, the intent is shown by policy and the achievement is shown by evidence. Winning trust on cultural issues will be much more challenging. These are not about policy so much as mindset. The issues that get prioritised, and those that get ignored, the rhetoric that is employed and the depth and breadth of the experience of the PM and those around him will all be critical factors and ones that are very hard to quantify when assessing how well policy choices are being made.
The omens on this front are not good. It is widely agreed in political strategy circles that the Tories won the last election through a combination of last-minute fear-mongering on the economy to secure floating lower middle class voters and whipping up English nationalism against the SNP to head off the UKIP threat. It showed that the Tories were happy to have more control over a smaller polity than to try and put forward a policy platform that appeals to Britain as a whole. Against the background of both the more divisive parts of his own speech and those of his cabinet ministers, references to an assault on poverty or a drive to end discrimination ring hollow.
Certainly there was little evidence of inclusiveness on display when he characterised the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition as a terrorist sympathiser who hates Britain and thinks the assassination of Osama Bin Laden was a tragedy. It is hard to imagine the great Conservative politicians whose ranks he was so consciously trying to join using such disrespectful language of a fellow Parliamentarian in public. Indeed, for a speech so centred on Britishness, it was strange that so many of its tactics – unapologetic use of an out of context quotation , with-us-or-against-us rhetoric and appeals to a flat, two-dimensional patriotism that claims to transcend the divisions race and class while at the same time reinforcing them – came straight out of the playbook of the less reputable elements of American Republican Party.
On stage, under the spotlight and with the news cameras on him, David Cameron delivered a speech that no doubt electrified the base, thrilled the pundits and may even have begun to persuade those in the centre that he is interested in their concerns. But as the cut to tax credits bites and the upcoming spending review lays out precisely how deep the next round of cuts will be, it is likely that he will struggle to persuade voters that his vision of the greatest, most Britainest Britain ever is anything more than an anachronism, a pastiche of Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia.
This country faces serious challenges, the experience of many ordinary British people is far out of step with the vision Cameron painted in Manchester. David Cameron’s response may well have been what the Tory faithful wanted and what the media have learned to regard as good politics, but it was the politics of the bubble. Cameron’s gamble is that there are more of us inside the bubble of his vision of Britishness than outside. It is a PR man’s gamble and it may yet cost the United Kingdom dear.