David Cameron: from foolhardy champion swimmer to panicked doggy-paddler

The prime minister's party conference speech had only regurgitated rhetoric, with no policy, ideas or budget to back it up.

 

Do you remember that funny 1980s film, Weekend at Bernie’s? Two losers trying to pretend that their boss hadn’t really died, so that they may continue to party at his expense? That, for me, was the inescapable image of the Conservative Party conference.

The corpse, in this case, is the government’s neoliberal economic policy, complete with comedy hat and sunglasses. The rigor mortis of contraction and unemployment is making it increasingly difficult for George Osborne to manipulate the arm into nonchalantly waving at a passing Christine Lagarde. She’s not buying it. The party is over.

I was fully prepared to write a piece attacking all the erroneous figures, the misquoted statistics, the circular arguments. But I won’t. Firstly, because it is futile; the depressing truth is that nobody with the intellect to be interested in such writing believes much of what this (or any) government says. Secondly, because, having heard Cameron’s evangelical call to arms, there are more fundamental things to address.

“I'm not here to defend privilege. I'm here to spread it”, says Cameron. The delegates cheer ecstatically. But what is the reality behind the one-liner? Privilege is by definition what one has above what others have. The very core of privilege is inequality. In short, the prime minister of a country in which less than 10 per cent of the population control more that 50 per cent of the wealth, wants more inequality. Of course he does, he is part of that 10 per cent.

Still, we mustn’t resort to the “politics of resentment”, we were told with metronomic regularity this week. We mustn’t think ill of those hard-working people who do well. The implication being that, if you’re not doing well, you’re just not working hard enough. Also, that all those who do well, have worked hard. Like Osborne and Cameron who inherited their wealth.

Cameron saluted “the doers” and “the risk-takers”. The Doers and Risk-takers in the City of London and Wall Street, those arsonists largely responsible for setting the world on fire, salute you back, David. And why shouldn’t they? They are seemingly untouchable by regulation, prosecution – and now, even resentment.

On the other hand, when it comes to resenting the poor, the unemployed, the unionised, the immigrant, the sick, the squatter, the public servant, the European, the young, the old, the intellectual, the Muslim, the demonstrator - resentment is not only allowed. It is encouraged.

In this current climate of unemployment and misery, it has never occurred to me when leaving home for a job, to be anything other than grateful that I have a job. I have never glanced at a neighbour’s drawn blinds and thought “you lucky sod, surviving on sixty quid a week”.

The reason 2.6 million unemployed cannot be shoe-horned into three hundred thousand vacancies is mathematics. Not a lack of aspiration.

That word - aspiration… Repeated again and again. “Conservatives are the party of aspiration.” They are here to help those who aspire. “The young people who dream of their first pay cheque, their first car, their first home – and are ready and willing to work hard to get those things.” More cheers from the hypnotised delegate-flock.

It doesn’t occur to David Cameron how utterly depressing it is for the leader of this country to define “aspiration” as the lust for money, cars and property.

It never occurs to him how hypocritical it is for this to come from someone who knew they would get a car as a present on their eighteenth birthday, always have a comfortable home to live in and a pay cheque guaranteed upon graduation because daddy could pull strings.

It does not occur to him how hilariously at odds this is with his rhetoric on the big society. How it exposes the idiocy of the expectation that once this fictional young person, bred to be selfish and materialistic, has accumulated enough pay cheques, enough cars, enough homes, they will go out and run a soup kitchen for those “less aspirational”.

It never even occurs to him that this mass psychosis, of judging success solely by reference to what each person can grab for themselves, is at the root of the social decay he bemoans; at the root of crime, poverty, environmental damage, the looting last summer, the financial crisis in 2008.

But most frighteningly, it does not appear to occur to him that the position of prime minister involves more than passionately delivered, hollow words.

Last year, he framed his speech with “Britannia didn’t rule the waves with her armbands on”. This year he says “it is time to sink or swim”. An elegant, if unwitting, indication of how his thinking has moved on; from foolhardy champion swimmer to panicked doggy-paddler.

The UK economy is fast becoming a small makeshift raft, cobbled together from antiquated dogma, U-turns and fiascos, adrift in a sea of global uncertainty. Selling off the planks to passing sharks is not a solution. When the water is ankle-deep, crew and passengers look to the captain for action, not regurgitated rhetoric, however deftly delivered.

All he can do is stand there and shout passionately “The Free Market will save us! Enterprise will save us! Aspiration will save us!” Abstract, deified, neoliberal concepts without a smidgeon of policy, detail or budget to back them up.

I recognised his speech for what it was: A drowning man’s gurgling prayer.

 

David Cameron. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.