Cameron on the Andrew Marr Show: articulate but vague

The Conservative leader is a showman, but he is still weak on policy

Having just watched David Cameron on the Andrew Marr Show, I feel a little as if I've just witnessed a conjuring trick at a children's party -- puffs of smoke, but no real magic.

As expected, the Conservative leader was articulate, polished and smooth, but also slippery and frequently vague, failing to give conclusive answers to the big questions.

In a studiously calm tone of voice, he repeated the words "modern" and "compassionate" ad nauseam, invoking the spirit of Tony Blair when he said:

I haven't made these changes some wheeze to get elected. This is who I am; this is what I am.

But he didn't actually explain what exactly it is that he is. As Marr said at the end of the interview: "I still don't know whether you are a radical or a central manager."

The focus was on message and image, rather than conviction or ideology. For example, Cameron used the "very, very frank, and clear, and positive" Conservative commitment to ringfence the NHS budget as evidence of a reformed party. This rhetoric describes the image that the party hopes to convey with the pledge, but does not offer any detail about why it has ringfenced health spending, or how it will deal with the implications. In response to Marr's suggestion that this could force cuts of up to 20 per cent for other departments, Cameron fell back to his default position: "I don't know the figures, but at least we're admitting there will be cuts."

Similarly, when Marr pushed Cameron on George Osborne's scathing criticism of government plans to increase National Insurance, the Tory leader made a virtue of vagueness. Unable to commit to reversing the NI increase, Cameron declared: "This shows that we're being very disciplined -- we will not pledge to get rid of it until we work out how." He defended his confusion over marriage tax breaks on the grounds of "responsibility", too.

Of course well-thought-out policy is desirable, but it seems that this notion of "responsibility" is being invoked as a smokescreen to disguise a simple fact: the Conservatives don't have all the answers. Repeat something enough, after all, and eventually it will stick.

Disappointingly, Marr didn't pick up the issue of inheritance tax, though Cameron himself made a nod to it when he said that Labour was sending an anti-aspirational message: "Don't leave money to your children." The Tory leader utterly refused to engage with issues that were embarrassing to him. He interrupted Marr to speak about his "strong team" when the presidential style of that giant poster was mentioned, and when asked what Lord Ashcroft thought of the pledge that all peers should be UK taxpayers, he said: "He's very happy about it."

Cameron did make a few policy announcements, aimed at small businesses. These include reducing the time it takes to start a new business in the UK, making insolvency levels more lenient to stave off bankruptcy, and legal reforms to allow everyone to start a business from their homes. He also said that the Tories would impose an annual cap on immigration and tighten up the student visa system.

But these are relatively small measures. Cameron said he prided himself on bringing the Tories away from fringe issues and into the mainstream debate on areas such as health and education, but this is irrelevant if he does not engage in any sustained and detailed way.

His appearance today confirmed what we already knew: he is a showman, but policy is still a weak point for him and his party. Labour must subject these spectacularly vague statements to proper scrutiny, as it did with the marriage tax proposals before the disasters of last week took hold. Retrieving that momentum may be the only way for Labour to save itself from a crashing defeat.

 

PS: Having blogged several times about The Poster of our boy Dave, I must give special mention to his (pre-prepared, I would guess) joke about the airbrushing fiasco: "I didn't have anything to do with it, but Samantha did say to me, 'If that was airbrushed, get your money back.' "

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder