Cameron goes off the rails

The PM's patronising demand for families to clear their debts is bad economics and terrible politics

Leave aside the economics for now, David Cameron's call for households to clear their debts is terrible politics. In his speech at the Conservative conference today, he will say:

"The only way out of a debt crisis is to deal with your debts. That means households - all of us - paying off the credit card and store card bills."

At a time when voters are facing the biggest fall in living standards since the 1920s (owing to a combination of rising prices, falling wages, lower benefits and higher taxes), Cameron's demand is hideously patronising. It is a perfect example of what the novelist Joyce Carey once described as a "tumbril remark" - the sort of statement seemingly designed to ignite class war. Marie Antoinette's infamous (and likely apocryphal) riposte to the news that the poor were suffering due to bread shortages ("let them eat cake") is the most celebrated historical example.

Now, Cameron, a man who has had never had a money worry in his life, insists that the poor must repay their debts, as if, up to this point, they had merely chosen not to do so. I cannot recall a less sensitive or more thoughtless remark from a serving Prime Minister.

But worse, Cameron's comments confirm that he has no grasp of basic economics. If we are to avoid an economic death spiral, we need people to spend, not save. Keynes's paradox of thrift explains why. The more people save, the more they reduce aggregate demand, thus further reducing (and eventually destroying) economic growth. They will be individually wise but collectively foolish. If no one spends (because they're paying off their debts) then businesses can't grow and unemployment willl soar. The paradox is that if everyone saves then savings eventually become worthless.

The final and greatest irony is that Cameron is leading a government whose own policies are increasing household debt. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that household debt will rise from £1,560bn in 2010 to £2,126bn in 2015 (or from an average of £58,000 to an average of £77,309. NB: the figures include mortgages), largely due to higher inflation (encouraged by Osborne's VAT rise) but also due to "the reductions in social security payments announced in the October Spending Review, which act to reduce household disposable income". In other words, George Osborne's decision to take an axe to the welfare state is helping to fuel the household debt bubble.

No one denies that household debt is too high. Indeed, UK households are more indebted than those of any other major economy. But if Cameron wants to address this problem he should have said something about the fact that 11 million low-to-middle earners have seen no rise in their real income since 2003. People borrowed to maintain their living standards as wages stagnated. Cameron's blunt demand for households to repay their debts suggests a man who not only can't solve the problem but doesn't even understand it. Today, we have seen the clearest indication yet that he is unfit to govern this country.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war