Picture by Nick Pickles
Two years ago in Manchester Boris wowed the Tory faithful (and infuriated his party leader) by calling for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty – cheerfully trampling all over David Cameron's carefully crafted explanation for withdrawing his own referendum pledge. No wonder the Prime Minister looked a trifle uneasy as he sat in the audience yesterday, watching his unruly Mayor. Sure enough, Boris managed to hit a nerve, as he asserted his personal determination to maintain police numbers to the level considered necessary for London. It was a less flagrant piece of defiance, and a pledge that Theresa May had little difficulty in covering off in a later interview. But the message from Boris was, as ever, quite clear: I'm in charge of London, you keep off my patch.
Lucky Boris. Scheduled as an early morning warm up, he steals the show. His speech was rambling, there were non-sequiturs, frequent stumbles and shuffling of papers, but his audience loved it. In contrast to the Chancellor's strange head swivelling on Monday, the Mayor doesn't bother with an autocue. If he loses his place in the script, or forgets his lines, he just makes it up on the spot. How he must infuriate David and George. Most infuriating of all, of course, is the fact that Boris really is in charge of his patch. His power is undiluted by the demands of coalition; he doesn't have to ask those pesky LibDems before he rolls out a policy announcement or a budget cut. Best of all, he can now list his successes in office and claim all the credit for himself (and there's no false modesty for Bozza.)
But there's another reason why Conservative audiences adore Boris right now. His exuberant self-assurance makes us feel confident too: confident about being Conservative and confident that Conservatives in power can get things done. That's a very welcome feeling, and it's a feeling in rather short supply in 2011. In government, both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are under huge pressure to supply confidence to the nation and to show confidence to the world. They cannot afford to betray the fears which must haunt them both, that as the Eurozone implodes (and it surely will, the only difference between now and later being that later will be more costly) Britain's fragile recovery may crumble to dust. The bright sunlit uplands of George Osborne's speech will be a long time coming. In the meantime, our economy limps along. In the shadow of the European troubles, with a mountain of domestic debt to pay down, and rampant inflation eroding living standards, it seems inevitable that unemployment will continue to rise and living standards will fall. It's hard to be confident in such an environment.
Even to inch our way back to growth, radical measures will be needed. The Chancellor is increasingly and painfully aware of just how bold he needs to be. The centre piece of his speech on Monday – credit easing – certainly sounded bold. Politely described by some commentators as “unconventional”, this tentative proposal is for the Government to take advantage of its triple-A rated access to cheap borrowing, lend on to SMEs and sell the debt (once repackaged) on the bond market. Or so various ministers described the concept to a baffled media on Monday. The details, once unveiled, may be more reassuring. For the moment, I agree with Allister Heath at City AM that this feels more like the small business version of sub-prime. Indeed, given Treasury assurances that these loans will not be categorised as debt on government balance sheets, it feels like sub-prime meets PFI.
So why does the Chancellor risk unveiling this half-cooked idea as a confidence booster? Doesn't he have any better ideas up his sleeve (preferably ideas which have been fully worked through before being announced)? He explained at some length why he was not prepared to be radical on tax cuts: he doesn't buy the idea that such cuts boost growth. So why not get radical about deregulation? Two modest changes to employment law were, finally, promised: extension of the qualifying period for unfair dismissal rights and a fee for tribunal applicants. Two steps in the right direction, but of very limited value given that employees' rights to lodge claims for discrimination (real or perceived) do not rest on qualifying periods, nor are they subject to a damages ceiling.
The procedures which burden businesses and which continue to consume time and resources are still growing daily. This week the Department for Business launched its Red Tape Challenge, acknowledging that the burden of regulation is too high and inviting employers to propose reforms – yet the top line of the consultation is that any changes must ensure “the current standard of employment rights for employees are maintained.” And here's the rub. Whilst the Conservatives in government and on the backbenches all believe that employee rights have gone too far – at the expense of business and jobs – their Liberal Democrat colleagues simply don't agree. This consultation, like so many others, will be mired in the compromises which have bedevilled the coalition for the past year.
Hanging over all this, of course, is Europe. For the news channels, stirring up the Tories on Europe is a favourite sport; hence Michael Crick on Channel 4, chasing ministers whilst brandishing Monday's edition of ConservativeHome Daily. But this time, it's serious. Because the Government's refusal to disentangle Britain from the political and economic disaster that is the EU is a failure of nerve which we will regret for years to come.
The cruel irony is that the leitmotif – and indeed the original justification – for the coalition government was to respond to the economic national emergency. Two old political enemies were laying down their differences to save the country, joining forces to tackle the deficit. Yet it has become painfully apparent that the compromises imposed on the Conservatives, in order to placate the Liberal Democrats, are hampering this central objective. Ministers – in both parties – will continue to defend the coalition's raison d'etre, but most of them know this is a busted flush.
If this were merely a battle for political survival, then it would be quite good sport. Conservatives, in this week of all weeks, are relishing the opportunity to showcase their policies on immigration, crime and the Human Rights Act – all more popular than the LibDem alternative. But as the conference season closes and the real business of government resumes, there is much more at stake. Surviving an economic storm takes determination, but it also requires confidence, born of conviction, to implement radical reform. If the only measures the Chancellor can put forward to boost the economy are those which meet Vince Cable's approval, don't bet on a quick recovery.
It's hard to imagine Boris as a coalition minister – he had enough trouble in his brief incarnation as a junior shadow during Michael Howard's leadership. But I bet that there were more than a few Conservatives in Manchester this week thinking they'd like to see him go head to head with the LibDems – and indeed with the European Union.