Will the UK's shrinking economy spoil Cameron's EU speech?

Any political high from Cameron's EU speech could be shortlived if figures released on Friday show that the UK economy shrunk in the final quarter of 2012.

In the absence of any unforseen hitches, David Cameron will finally deliver his long-delayed speech on Britain's relationship with the EU this week. It won't be today, the day of Barack Obama's second inauguration, or tomorrow, when thousands of French and German politicians and diplomats will gather in Berlin to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Elysée Treaty (also known as the Treaty of Friendship) between the two countries, or at the end of the week, when Cameron travels to Davos for the 2013 World Economic Forum, leaving Wednesday as the most likely date for the address.

When Cameron gives his speech, promising that a Conservative government would seek to repatriate powers from Brussels before holding a referendum on the outcome (offering voters a choice between what Cameron calls a "new settlement" and withdrawal), he will hope, among other things, for a bounce in the polls. The last time that the Tories enjoyed a sustained lead over Labour was in December 2011 after Cameron's EU "veto". With reports of Conservative MPs reacquiring their taste for regicide, the PM is keen to show that there are things he can do to improve his party's dismal chances of victory at the next election.

But his speech risks being overshadowed by the other big event of the week: the release of the first estimate of UK quarter four GDP on Friday. After growth of 0.9 per cent in the third quarter, artifically inflated by the inclusion of the Olympic ticket sales and the bounce-back from the extra bank holiday in June, forecasters almost universally expect a negative figure. The government's own forecaster, the Office for Budget Responsibility, predicts that the economy shrunk by 0.1 per cent, while the National Institute of Economic and Social Research expects a contraction of 0.3 per cent.

A contraction in quarter four wouldn't represent an unprecedented "triple-dip recession" (that would require two successive quarters of negative growth), it would make it significantly harder for Cameron to claim that the economy is "healing" and embolden Labour to go on the attack. If the economy is shown to have shrunk in Q4, four of the last five quarters will have been negative.

We know from the pre-released extracts of Cameron's speech that the Prime Minister intends to bemoan the EU's "crisis of competitiveness". But if the UK economy, which has performed worse than almost any other in Europe, is shown to have shrunk again, his lecture could soon look ill-advised.

David Cameron is expected to deliver his speech on Britain's relationship with the EU on Wednesday. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories