Dave is digging a big hole which he will fall into.
Things will never get better for David Cameron. That triumphal speech was his apex, the acme, the zenith of his career. How he gloried in that exit poll victory moment: “There was a moment when I thought I had died and gone to heaven.” This is as good as it gets.
Secretly he must wonder if he should quit right now in this ascendant, all-conquering moment. For his “national crusade” in a “turnaround decade” of “social reform” is a delusion, as his map marches the country in the opposite direction. Wherever he imagines the common ground or centre ground to be, he has no compass nor any intention of going there. The disconnect, the cognitive dissonance, between the words in his speech and his actions past and planned made for a dizzying acrobatic performance. Talk left, walk right. Listen to what he says, don’t look down at what he does.
Here was a reprise of “let the sun shine in” early Cameron, the hoodie-hugging, greenest ever, poverty-angst leader of what he again calls his “one nation, moderate, compassionate Conservative party”. He gives a stellar platform performance – but we now know to check the silver. None of his plans point to “great social reforms”. Next month’s spending review will reveal all we need to know about his true direction. Follow the money, not the words.
Cameron’s “all-out assault on poverty” was an all-out assault on reality too. Crocodile tears for the “scourge of poverty” and “the brick wall of opportunity” hardly tallies with monumental £12bn benefit cuts taking from the poorest. All week he has smiled and faced down facts in interviews challenging the £1,000 in tax credits taken from three million “hard-working” families. How calmly he asserts that higher wages will compensate, though he knows it barely covers a quarter of each household’s loss. Within hours the Resolution Foundation showed that on top of the extra 700,000 children in poverty the IFS predicts, this summer’s budget alone throws another 200,000 households into penury – all of them families in work. But Cameron never blenches.
Does language matter more than deeds in politics? Can clever words entirely obscure deeds? Initial reaction to his speech suggests it works, at first. Look at the wild talk of his moving on to the centre ground, his tanks on Labour lawns. But in the end reality bites. That’s why nothing will ever be better than this for Cameron. Voters will find Cameron’s “party of working people” is an illusion. “The NHS safe because of us” was just one of his boasts unwinding as he spoke.
What does he really believe? Is he an ideologue, a pragmatist or an opportunist? Unlike Margaret Thatcher, he’s no theorist with a battered copy of Hayek in his pocket. But his Tory generation inhaled from political infancy that unquestioning fixation that the state must wither, all forms of welfare be cut and public spending shrivel. By all his choices, we know Cameron is a fundamentalist – but how well his silver tongue disguises that from a nation unprepared for what his government has in store. A state at 35% of GDP is nowhere in his prospectus – and he will be gone before the country finds out what that really means.
In his early days, Cameron kept Harold Macmillan’s photo on his desk to signify his moderation, consensus and compassion. But he’s no Macmillan. That Tory prime minister’s contribution to the welfare state was 350,000 new council homes built every year. Cameron makes housing his flagship – but look at the difference. His legacy effectively ends social housing, though few will realise that’s what his “dramatic shift in housing policy” means. He promises to move “generation rent to generation buy” in new starter homes, but who exactly? Shelter says it’s only a few of the top third of earners.
His scheme gets private developers to build homes for sale, but only for those with a £100,000 deposit in London, £40,000 outside. These aren’t for the nurses, police and teachers who need them, let alone for the council house queues or the homeless. Average earners will be priced out in 58% of local authorities: Londoners need to be earning £70,000, or £50,000 earners elsewhere.
This reverses Macmillan’s era of social housing because to build them Cameron is abolishing affordable homes schemes, releasing developers from section 106 levies that paid for councils to build for cheaper homes. Add in his right to buy for housing association tenants and his forcing councils to sell off their vacant homes and that loses hundreds of thousands of social homes. His own Kensington and Chelsea will put 97% of council properties up for sale as they come vacant. No hope for most of the 5 million renters. “Security” is Cameron’s current watchword – “for families, for the country” – but there is no security for families forever on short private leases.
Social mobility, he said, is the lowest in the developed world. But the answer is “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome”. That’s an old Conservative trope, conveniently denying any need for redistribution. How reasonable equal opportunity sounds: few want some soviet equaliser regardless of merit or effort. Eloquent in acknowledging some start far behind, he promises “everyone having the same shot”, but what’s missing is any recognition that there’s no fair shot for those start out too poor to live the same lives as their school mates. Education is the answer, he says, but he must know how few who start school without a decent home or income ever catch up with the rest. Behind the golden upbeat tones, he relies on people not knowing the facts that belie his words.
In Manchester we saw a leader sitting atop a smouldering volcano. The fires of the Euro referendum were quietly heating up under every power contender’s speech, their words carefully calibrated to let them jump for in or out, depending which way the party leans. And all the signs are of a party heading for Brexit. Cameron walked the tightrope in his speech, neither ready to “take what we’ve got and put up with it” nor “just walk away from the whole thing”. As a rehearsal for the battle to come, he was testing the ground, but up against Theresa May’s Powellite case for leaving the EU so as to bar immigration, the Cameron line feels perilously wobbly. He called the referendum, but he may not be able to hold back the molten tide he has unleashed.
For all his talk of loving every part of the nation, his legacy may be a disunited kingdom – politically more angrily divided than any time since Thatcher ignited the 1980s. This emollient speech will be forgotten if his epitaph names him as the man who took us out of Europe and thus lost Scotland and broke the Northern Ireland peace accord. He will not just have shrunk the state and left a dwindled public realm, but he will have lost the realm itself. He may look back on this speech as his finest hour – and a political lesson in how fine words never in the end disguise political deeds.
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