25 May 2012

Crisis of confidence for the coalition

Jason Cowley, editor of the <i>New Statesman</i>, talks about David Cameron's image crisis

The Economist magazine’s cover image of 12 August 2010 portrayed the new prime minister, David Cameron, with an aggressively spiked Mohican, in the colours of the Union Jack flag. The cover line was “Radical Britain: the West’s most daring government”. The Con-Lib (or Con-Dem, to its disparagers) government was back then perceived by many to be “radical” because it was daring simultaneously to cut both the demand for, and the supply of, the state. It had a Big Plan. The public sector was “crowding out” the private sector. The previous Labour government, especially in its terminal phase under the leadership of Gordon Brown, had overspent on public services and welfare, and Britain would benefit from a long, cold blast of fiscal conservatism. Bold reduction of the budget deficit inherited from Labour, and caused largely by emergency spending and tax cuts employed to avert depression after the banking crisis, would assuage the bond markets as well as the credit ratings agencies, which were threatening to downgrade the UK’s AAA-credit rating. We would all benefit from an expansionary fiscal contraction.

The prime minister has long feared being seen as out of touch and aloof

Jason Cowley

 It was indeed a radical plan, but the risks were obvious, not least because the experiences of the 1930s should have been warning enough that it is dangerous for a government to cut its way out of recession; withdraw stimulus too soon, without a plan for growth, and the economy could be tipped back into recession. David Cameron liked The Economist cover so much he had it framed and it now hangs on the wall in his Downing Street study. It’s unlikely that he would have appreciated the cover image of 12 May this year, in which the prime minister is portrayed not as a radical punk but this time as Mr Andrews in Gainsborough’s 1750 bucolic celebration of aristocratic ease, Mr and Mrs Andrews.

In The Economists reconfiguration of that painting, Cameron is dressed as and in the pose of an 18th century landed aristocrat. He leans insouciantly against a tree, two hunting hounds scuttling at his feet, while in the far distance the ancestral mansion is in flames, with figures fleeing from it. The headline is “Crisis? What Crisis?”

This is what the prime minister has long feared most – of being caricatured, even by Tory cheerleaders, as out of touch and aloof, a son of high privilege and of the trust fund classes who knows little of the struggles of the everyday, and cares even less. It’s widely agreed that more than two years on from Cameron and Nick Clegg’s post-election nuptials in the Downing Street rose garden, the coalition is in trouble. The British economy is back in recession – the dreaded “double dip”.

 At the local elections on 3 May, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats together lost 741 seats, with Labour making significant advances, gaining 823 seats. It was only in the London mayoral election that the Conservatives won a notable victory, with the incumbent Boris Johnson narrowly defeating his veteran rival, Ken Livingstone, who fought a poor campaign. As we move towards the summer parliamentary recess, Cameron must urgently convince not only the electorate but his restive backbenchers that he can galvanize the government and, by implication, the country and the economy. He also has to demonstrate basic competence and to recapture the optimism of his first year in power. Ed Miliband remains little known in the country at large, and is thus not popular. He “isn’t cutting through”, in the jargon. Yet when I last saw him for a cup of tea at his Westminster offices, he seemed much more confident, engaged by ideas, and emboldened by the government’s troubles. The Tories have never rated Miliband – they feared his brother David more and Alan Johnson, the former postman who rose to be home secretary, most of all – but they may yet come to regret underestimating him. Labour won 39% of the vote at the local elections (compared with 31% for the Tories and 14% for the Lib Dems, whose left-leaning supporters are defecting to Labour). Just consider what might happen should Miliband ever start to “cut through”.


Jason CowleyJason Cowley is the editor of the New Statesman