By Peter Hoskin
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It’s only a matter of hours before the 2012 Olympics are over; and a matter of hours, too, before David Cameron embarks on his Mediterranean holiday. This is why the Prime Minister has packed so much into this Sunday so far. Television appearances, newspaper op-eds, press conferences, policy announcements, we’ve had the lot — and all in the service of snatching some of that Olympic gold-dust before it dissipates this autumn. Just in case you were tuned into the Games or the football earlier, as is right, here are the notes I quickly jotted down about some of the main themes:
A springboard to post-2015. People were talking about a “relaunch” at this year’s party conference, but there’s been a feel of that today. The Tory leadership have clearly realised that, even if it doesn’t translate to a poll bounce, the Olympic Games have still created an opportunity to talk more optimistically about Britain and Britain’s future. Mr Cameron’s rhetoric today has been full of the joys of medal success — and, in this respect, the timing of the Games has been particularly convenient. It is around now, in the parliamentary lifecycle, when a government should stop dwelling unduly on the past and start setting out, with greater clarity, the future it wants to bring about. This government has been hampered in that task by the grim economic conditions, but the Prime Minister is getting there with lines such as that in his article for the Sunday Times (£): “Not a country whose time has been, but one whose time has come.”
Reaffirming the Coalition’s commitment to international development. And the best politics-related image of the day? It has to be this shot of Mo Farah doing his “Mobot” celebration on the steps of No.10. The double gold medal-winner was there to take part in today’s summit aimed at tackling malnutrition in poor countries — and which Mr Cameron has placed much emphasis on. “We can't turn away from this and we won't,” said the Prime Minister earlier, and he’s already committed £120 million to the research of drought-resistant crops, among other measures. Of course, as we saw a few days ago, international aid is a controversial subject during a time of domestic budget cuts. But this hunger summit shows that Mr Cameron is determined to plough on anyway. If he sees the Olympics as a means of giving shape to Britain’s place in the world, then aid is certainly part of his plan.
More money for sports. The closest we’ve come to a political spat over the past couple of weeks has been over sports funding and sports in schools — with a whole host of people, both friendly and not, urging Downing Street to do more. And David Cameron has, to some extent, given in to these demands: today he announced that £125 million a year will be funnelled into Olympic sports until the next Games in Rio. What strikes me is that this is one of the few areas where Mr Cameron freely admits a link between cash and outcomes; such that the bigger the cash pot, the better the outcomes. And then there’s Ed Miliband’s claim that he will not play politics over this issue, which fits in with his party’s other recent cross-party appeals. Conference season will tell whether this is a genuine offer, or a cynical attempt to appear more reasonable should the next election produce another hung parliament and another round of coalition negotiations.
The Coe glow. Mo Farah wasn’t the only Olympic hero that Mr Cameron appeared alongside today — there was also Seb Coe. As Matthew d’Ancona revealed in his Sunday Telegraph column, the sporting Lord has been appointed as the government’s “Legacy Ambassador,” tasked with making the sure that the Games continue to count, socially as well as commercially. No doubt Mr Cameron is also keen to have his government closely associated with Lord Coe, who has to be one of the most popular Conservative political figures in the country. And by “closely”, I mean closely — Lord Coe will be working from the Cabinet Office, next door to No.10.
Another go at the Big Society. In almost all of Mr Cameron’s appearances today, he has gone out of his way to praise the volunteers who did a lot to deliver these Games — and there will be more to come. And although he has steered clear from the words “Big Society”, the underlying politics are clear. The question now is whether he will press forward with this Burkean message about society, along the lines recently sketched out by Iain Martin.
And one final point: all of the above may seem nice and optimistic, but it could well be upset by the froth and fury of conference season. Already, we’re hearing that Vince Cable and even Danny Alexander are shaping up to take on their Tory colleagues — and that’s before we get onto the simmering resentment among the Lib Dem grassroots. Mr Cameron may be having reconciliatory chats with Nick Clegg, but there’s a lot of poison in the air.