While he was preparing his 1944 Education Act, Rab Butler went to see Churchill. He was unsure how the PM would react to his proposal for free school milk. There was no problem. “Pour it down their throats” said the great man, while re-filling Butler’s champagne glass. “Wish we could give them this as well”. “You’re too generous with that as it is, Winston”, said Clementine Churchill, fixing a beady eye on Rab. Churchill was undeterred: “I wish that every cottage home could enjoy the advantages I’ve had’.
Although he would use rather more modern language, David Cameron shares Churchill’s social generosity. So he would have preferred to deliver this week’s speech in very different circumstances. In the early 2000s, like the great majority of politicians and economic commentators, Cameron thought that the world economy would continue to grow. He was aware that state spending was increasing too rapidly and needed restraint. Even so, he thought that a Cameron government would be able to share the proceeds of growth. Until the credit crunch, it did not seem impossible to achieve a blessed equilibrium, in which taxes were cut and debt repaid while public expenditure increased in real terms while falling as a proportion of GDP.
That has been the Tory goal since the 1980s and is best described as Tory Fabianism. If, year on year, the state spends a lower proportion of the nation’s income while owning a smaller share of the nation’s wealth, even small percentages will gross up to a significant amount over the course of a Parliament. More and more money would be left to fructify in the pockets of the people, and the private sector. But that is now as remote as the defeat of Hannibal at the beginning of Quintus Fabius Cunctator’s campaigns. David Cameron, not naturally an austere character, must adjust to the exigencies of an austere age. Churchillian generosity must give way to blood, sweat, toil and tears.
There is a difficulty. The great majority of the Tories in Manchester are realists. But they do want to endure three days of unrelieved gloom. They would like an excuse to feel cheerful – or at least, to look forward to feeling cheerful.
That does not make matters easy for Cameron. Last week, Labour politicians talked as if he were lounging in a signal box with two levers, marked “growth” and “recovery”, which he was willfully refusing to pull. To Cameron, it does often seem that he is indeed in a signal box; one so enshrouded in fog that he cannot see the railway line. It would be fatuous for him to offer a timetable for economic recovery and he would not dream of doing so. His task this week is to offer realism, but this side of despair: hope, without sounding facile.
In political terms, this has one advantage. Well-delivered, a sombre message can also be a strong one. This should make it easy for Cameron to look and sound like a leader. So do his partners and opponents. To be fair to Nick Clegg, he is not bad. But as Deputy Prime Minister, the stress is on “Deputy”. In the case of Ed Miliband, the stress is on him, and his supporters.
Poor Miliband. He is not stupid. He is interested in social questions. He has ideas. He too would like to harmonise a strong society and a competitive economy. Despite being a Hampstead Leftie, he has earned a Beta double minus for his attempts to understand the concept of competition. But that is the trouble. Ed Miliband is the Beta double minus candidate. From a Tory point of view, he is the best Labour leader since Michael Foot (there were moments, mercifully brief, when it did not seem impossible that Neil Kinnock might become Prime Minister). As a Leader of the Labour party, Miliband would make a good General Secretary of the Fabian Society.
But Labour’s problems were not created by Ed Miliband. Where is the alternative. Admittedly, the elder Miliband is a little better. He could reach Beta single minus. But changing Milipedes at this stage would not make their party seem electable. It would make Labour seem ridiculous.
Beyond the entomologist’s collecting box, who else is there? The Balls family? Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper are evenly matched, when it comes to human warmth, generosity of spirit and appeal to anyone with aspirations. There is also Harriet Harman, a diffident girl who seems to have eschewed leadership ambitions. It is to be hoped that she will overcome her shyness. Her warmth and generosity are at least the equal of the Balls household’s.
So Labour could have a long post-Miligeek future, oscillating between Balls and the nanny state. To any sensible Labour supporter – not wholly an oxymoron – that must seem as horrifying a prospect as the one with which the Witches taunted Macbeth: an endless succession of Banquo’s descendants, ruling as Kings of Scotland. But Labour’s position is even worse. Some of Banquo’s heirs might have been capable of winning elections – and today’s Witches are not taunting the Labour party. They are running it.
The Labour party is an easy target. That is why Cameron should largely ignore it. The voters always claim to disapprove of ding-dong politics. In reality, they usually enjoy it, like grown-ups stopping to chuckle at a Punch-and-Judy show. But this year, it is different. People are worried about the state of the country: the state of the world – and Cameron should set his tone accordingly. The Leader’s speech is a national occasion as well as a party one. Cameron can have all the fun he wants at Miliband’s expense during Prime Minister’s Questions. This week is for serious business. In his field-sport days, Cameron scorned shooting low pheasants. In Manchester, he should be equally fastidious about squashing a scuttling milipede.
After all, there are more urgent tasks. A good performance by Cameron will boost morale. Although it would be absurd to claim that a powerful speech in Manchester will facilitate economic recovery, it is important that the public should have confidence in their Prime Minister: should feel that he is on their side and will eventually guide them through the stormy waters. It has often been observed that Cameron is never happier than when facing adversity. There is plenty of that around at the moment. In peace-time Britain, there has rarely been a greater need for leadership. That is a challenge which David Cameron should relish.