Last Monday, David Cameron made a speech on Life Chances, and was attacked for lauding “tiger mothers” in it. This Monday, he wrote an article about speaking English and stopping extremism, and was assailed for linking the two. Is he bothered? “Am I bovvered!”
These Monday initiatives have three main purposes. First, to get the media to report and comment on Government plans that are not about the EU referendum, thereby reminding voters that it has other reasons to be here. Second, to show people that the Prime Minister is still in office and still in charge. And, third, to tackle issues that are important to him.
Mock if you like Cameron’s strategic shifts, such as pushing the Big Society front-of-house before quietly moving it to the back of the shop. Or quibble with the details, such as whether it makes sense to propose deporting people who won’t learn English rather than requiring them to learn it before entry. Both are legitimate takes, but it is none the less true that this stuff – social reform, One Nation, helping the vulnerable, boosting aspiration, call it what you will – really does engage him. I once heard a friend refer to Prince Charles’s interest in the esoteric, with a mix of affection and spikiness, as an interest “in what he would call the Spiritual Thingy”. The Prime Minister is interested in the One Nation Thingy.
Sunday provides an opportunity to brief bits of the speech or article or initiative to the Sunday papers. Monday brings the address or piece itself, together with a photo-opportunity for the cameras. By the afternoon, the blogs and oped-pages are filling up, and the mix of outraged commentary, analysis and counter-intuitive support can be guaranteed to drag on into Tuesday. Tiger mothers – back in the jungle? Strengthening cohesion or stigmatising Muslims – what do you think? That’s three days worth of coverage. Voters won’t remember much of the detail, if any, but the thrust of Cameron’s case might just linger a bit in their minds for a while. And as long as it’s one that’s not offensive to them then it’s mission accomplished for Downing Street.
Number Ten itself admits that it’s hard to make an impact if you don’t provoke a row: “there has to be some grit in the oyster,” as one Downing Street source put it to me. We’re told that there will be no big speech next Monday, but that there will be more on Mondays to come. What about? Well, go back and have a look at his first big address after the election on families, schools and work: these are the themes to watch out for.
Making these speeches can also be a substitute for major Parliamentary Bills – if, that is, you think they might be vulnerable to your backbenchers in the Commons or to opposition in the Lords. As for Labour, it’s too consumed by its own difficulties to cause the Prime Minister many problems on Monday or the other six days of the week either.