Comment: Tories can afford to be upbeat

David Cameron has much to recommend him as he heads to Manchester.

By Dr Matthew Ashton

On the whole, David Cameron and his party have every reason to feel pleased with themselves as they gather in Manchester for the Conservative party conference. Their poll ratings, while not perfect, are better than some had been predicting at this stage in the electoral cycle. While there is continuous muttering on the back benches about the party being held hostage by the Liberal Democrats, the truth is that the Conservatives are getting the better part of the bargain by far, as demonstrated by the huge loss of council seats suffered by the Liberals in May.

Cameron has benefitted from four main factors over the past year. One is the thing that Gordon Brown never seemed to have, which is luck. Despite a huge number of potential problems arising in the last twelve months he appears to have side-stepped them all. The AV referendum could have gone against him which would have broken the monopoly of the two party system in the UK. His gamble over Libya could have resulted in yet another quagmire in the Middle-East but seems to have resolved itself, for the time being at least, as well as anyone could have hoped. Equally the riots, phone hacking and embarrassment over the NHS and forestry commission reforms would have severally damaged most other prime ministers. Cameron walked about from these with hardly a scratch.

Another advantage he has is a largely sympathetic press. Even though he’s now symbolically cut his ties with Rupert Murdoch, the Times and the Sun will continue to back him to the hilt. Mainly this is because they’ve always been conservative papers and since the Sun so publically broke with Labour they have nowhere else to turn. Equally in terms of the bigger picture the continuing uncertainty with regards to the global economy and the perilous situation in the Eurozone means the public and media are still willing to go along with the programme of cuts for fear of becoming another Greece.

The final factor that’s tremendously benefited Cameron is the weakness of the Labour party. Until Labour come to terms with their legacy and unveil a convincing set of new policies Ed Miliband and the shadow cabinet are always going to struggle when attacking the Conservatives. This can be seen week after week at prime ministers questions. The phone hacking scandal should have been a golden opportunity for Miliband to publically skewer Cameron over his misjudgements. However because of his own party’s previous close relationship with Murdoch he had to pull every punch, fatally blunting the attack.

All of this begs the question, what direction will Cameron and the Conservatives head in over the next year? In terms of his own approach to government Cameron seems to have decided that while the ‘big vision’ stuff is fine in theory, in practise he’s going to concentrate on more bread and butter issues. Certainly the phrase ‘big society’ appears to have been used less and less in the last few months. While it is still rolled out occasionally as rhetoric, I’ve yet to meet anyone who can coherently tell me what it actually involves.

Perhaps this is because the British public have never been keen on optimistic but vague visions of the future. What they tend to prefer is firm promises about specific policies. This is why I suspect the recent announcements about a return to weekly bin collections, raising the speed limit on the motorways to 80 miles an hour and the renewed emphasis on ‘right to buy’ will go down well. Certainly Jeremy Clarkson and co will be cheering it from the rooftops and their influence shouldn’t be underestimated. Labour and some in the Liberal Democrats might sneer at it as crowd pleasing stunts but they shouldn’t ignore how much traction issues like this have on the average doorstep.

The big cloud on the horizon, however, is the economy. Earlier I wrote about the global economic outlook and this will be crucial. Britain may be an island but thanks to globalisation we’re as economically interconnected as almost every other nation in the world. As a result if Greece defaults and the US goes back into recession the UK will be swept along in the resulting financial meltdown. To quote Bill Clinton: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.' All of Cameron’s hopes and plans are based on us arriving at the 2015 election with the deficit either substantially reduced or wiped out, and the economy growing strongly again. At the moment thanks to sluggish, if not catatonic growth rates, the UK economy seems to be flat-lining.

After making such a big argument that the cuts are vital to our recovery it would be humiliating for Cameron and Osborne if they were forced into Plan B in the next two years. Because a U-turn of such a scale would be politically difficult I expect that instead there will be a series of minor policy adjustments over the next few months that will be sold as a change in emphasis rather than substance. That way Osborne can seek to stimulate growth without looking like he’s abandoned their other policy commitments. However if the economy continues to falter and Labour can offer a realistic alternative solution then Cameron should really start to worry.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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