David Cameron’s speech to Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham today invoked the spirit of Lord Kitchener, declaring that “Your Country Needs You” in what he called a “call to arms” to harness the potential of British civil society.
The Prime Minister’s broad-brush remarks that he “knows how anxious people are” about upcoming spending cuts and that he “wish[ed] there was an easier way” were received well in the conference hall.
Yet while he praised the entrepreneurial role of British inventors and innovators in the creation of wealth, his remarks said virtually nothing about those already in work, who are immensely fearful for their jobs in advance of impending public spending cuts in the comprehensive spending review on 20 October.
Given that Cameron has repeatedly called the need to tackle the budget deficit “the most urgent issue facing Britain”, the Prime Minister funked his chance to articulate a wider industrial relations policy.
As The Guardian suggested in June, the government is expecting between 500,000 and 600,000 jobs to go in the public sector and between 600,000 and 700,000 to disappear in the private sector by 2015.
The Prime Minister did not speak to these people.
Elsewhere, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has attempted to address this issue. His speech on Monday, for example, called for the need to reform current industrial relations law. His proposals, if effected, would require a minimum 50% turnout from members in any union ballot over strike action.
Johnson also revealed in an interview on Newsnight on Tuesday that he had discussed his idea with “all levels of government” – including with the Prime Minister himself – but wouldn’t indicate whether or not he enjoyed his support.
It is questionable whether Cameron, already acutely mindful of the future antagonisms that the comprehensive spending review will bring, will want to open up yet another battlefront with the unions.
Prior to the General Election, in remarks that were roundly criticised by the Unite union, David Cameron said in March during British Airway’s cabin crew dispute that:
I think the unions have scented weakness in the government and that’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing quite so many strikes
But now the shoe is on the other foot as Prime Minister, and given that a whole host of disputes over pay and conditions across different industries will flare again and again in the coming Parliamentary session, Cameron missed a major opportunity to outline his own industrial relations policy.
No doubt Cameron wants to avoid tiresome narratives of both “beer and sandwiches” and the “enemy within”.
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister must articulate how he intends to deal with workers about to lose their jobs.
UPDATE: Quick as a flash, Nick Robinson beats me to the punch in locating the original Kitchener poster on his newsblog. I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot of it in tomorrow’s papers.
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