By Paul Goodman
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" 'What would you do in our place?' asks one insider, not unreasonably." The sentence appeared in the midst of Janan Ganesh's column in yesterday's Financial Times (£). Janan added: "A
more strategic approach perhaps looks feasible only from the comfort of
the columnist’s chair."
He was right to point out that being a spectator is a great deal easier than being an actor. I have been a commentator…then an MP…then a commentator again – and agree that occupying that chair is more comfortable than sitting on the back or front bench in the Commons.
For all that, though, the insider has succumbed to inertia if he or she really believes that there is nothing at all that David Cameron could do to try to get back in control of events. For example, he could re-read his excellent conference speech of last year. Here's part of it:
"And for us Conservatives, this is not just an economic mission – it’s also a
moral one. It’s not just about growth and GDP…
…it’s what’s always made our hearts beat faster – aspiration; people rising
from the bottom to the top.
Line one, rule one of being a Conservative is that it’s not where you’ve come
from that counts, it’s where you’re going.
We’ve been led by the daughter of a grocer, the son of a music hall performer
… by a Jew when Jews were marginalised, by a woman when women were
sidelined. We don’t look at the label on the tin; we look at what’s in it"
Cameron's purpose was to show that "this party has a heart, but we don’t like wearing it on our sleeve" – and thus marry two big Tory themes: being the party of those who get ahead and being one for those who fall behind. He applied the idea to schools and welfare reform:
We say we’ve got to get the private sector bigger and the public sector
smaller…our opponents call it ‘Tory cuts, slashing the state’. No: it’s the
best way to create the sustainable jobs people need.
We say help people become independent from welfare…our opponents call it:
‘cruel Tories, leaving people to fend for themselves.’
No: there is only one real route out of poverty and it is work.
We say we’ve got to insist on a disciplined, rigorous education for our
children … our opponents call it: ‘elitist Tories, old-fashioned and out of
No: a decent education is the only way to give all our children a proper start
in this world.
The reason we want to reform schools, to cut welfare dependency, to reduce
government spending is not because we’re the same old Tories who want to
help the rich… it’s because we’re the Tories whose ideas help everyone –
the poorest the most."
Once he's re-read the speech, the Prime Minister should ask: has there really been enough follow-up? Indeed, has there been any at all? If not, what's the point of my conference speeches, since only a tiny number of voters see even a clip from them?
Labour has made a focused to follow-up Ed Miliband's own "One Nation" conference speech last year. (For example, Andy Sawford, the party's victorious candidate in last year's Corby by-election, deployed the phrase in the second sentence of his victory speech.
The Prime Minister should ask himself:
- Have I gone with Michael Gove to a free school battling for its future in a Labour-held marginal, and made a major speech on how we're fighting for social justice against producer interests, by giving poorer children the chance to learn and prosper?
- Have I spoken alongside Nick Boles at an imaginative housing development set up by a Conservative-run council, to show how we're striving to end the scandal of young people not being able to afford to buy a house until their mid-30s?
- Have I travelled with Elizabeth Truss to a childcare setting which demonstrates how her ideal of making childcare more affordable could be realised, and set out the Government's policy for families?
- Have I utlilised the standing of Iain Duncan Smith enough – the one senior Conservative who's treated with respect on poverty by a suspicious media – by going with him to, say, a alcohol and substance abuse facility that gets results?
Speeches aren't everything – as Tim Montgomerie has pointed out, the Prime Minister probably makes too many. Nor are TV pictures. Cameron has other ways of getting his message across – the big interview on Marr, say, being one of them.
But if that insider asked me: "What would you do in our place?", I'd answer: "You've a tougher job than mine. You're always at risk of getting knocked off course. But it would be easier to stay on it if you stick at a way of trying to set it."
"Ask yourself: have we really tried to follow up the Prime Minister's biggest speech of the year – the one which he presumably puts the most thought and effort into. And if we haven't, why was it made at all?"