Bring me sunshine

Published in The Guardian (October 4th, 2011)

The meetings began in the summer with gentle debate down at Chequers over the central themes and tone of David Cameron’s conference speech. Then came the riots, the deepening crisis in Europe, the worsening economic figures. And now, dozens of drafts later and after final rushed meetings in the prime minister’s hotel room in Manchester, it is ready for delivery. Apart from a few last-minute twists and tweaks, of course.

For all the party leaders, the energy expended on their keynote conference speech is faintly absurd, overshadowing their teams’ summer break and dominating thoughts for far too long. So much time spent on something that is heard by so few people, means so little and disappears so fast into the past. Yet even as political parties whither away, they remain curiously important in creating the template for a leader’s time in office.

We saw this again over the past two weeks. First Nick Clegg showed surprising maturity amid the childish posturing of some of his colleagues. Then Ed Milliband, having correctly analysed the anger felt around the country over feral behaviour at both the top and bottom of society, underscored doubts about whether he was up to the job with a speech of stunning stupefaction.

Now it is Cameron’s turn. Five years ago, as a new and little-known leader, he shocked his audience by first declaring unequivocal support for gay marriage, then underlining his natural optimism with a crude but effective line hastily added in the chaotic final countdown: “Let sunshine win the day.” Taken together, they demonstrated he was a new type of Tory, very different to the pessimists that dominated the party for too long and helped keep it out of office.

The nation needs to hear a similar message this time. Cameron has to woo women and wavering voters with a forceful reminder that he is a modern, liberal and progressive Conservative while giving the country some cause for optimism. The polls show that despite his strong personal popularity, both he and his party are perceived as drifting back to the right – while more than half the electorate, and all key swing voters, remain resolutely in the centre. There is a danger the hard work modernising the Conservative brand and policies in opposition is being undone by the realities of government in tough times.

The prime minister must ignore the siren voices of the right, amplified by their online friends, who are once again clamouring to pull Britain out of Europe, to focus tax cuts on the rich and for ever-tougher stances on immigration and crime. This might please party activists and win cheap applause on the conference fringe. It is also the way to lose elections as seen in the past, a reminder of the nasty party with its toxic talk and outmoded obsessions.

Cameron’s difficulties are intensified by fissures in the coalition. The Liberal Democrats, floundering in the polls and hesitant in office, have started rather tediously to trumpet alleged successes in pushing through progressive measures and preventing “hard-right” policies – even though sometimes these are sensible reforms of public services previously endorsed by their leaders. The effect, however, is to paint the Conservative party in the deepest blue hues – aided and abetted by rightwing Tories falling for this ploy, who ignore the reality that nearly two-thirds of voters did not support them at the last election.

So once again, Cameron faces a big challenge in his conference speech. Two years ago, when the party last descended on Manchester, he won loud applause by saying it was the Conservatives that stood up for the poor. He was right to highlight how Labour allowed a ballooning welfare state to fail too many of those most in need, whether through sink schools, welfare dependency, rising inequality or criminal recidivism. We saw the legacy again last week with lamentable adoption figures. Now, amid public spending cuts and with living standards falling for the first time in living memory, he needs to prove he meant what he said with a clarion call for one-nation conservatism.

The prime minister will focus on the economy and stimulation of growth, but he must also show understanding of the fears for the future and fierce desire for fairness felt by so many people. There must be recognition that in such turbulent times everyone must share the sacrifices, especially the wealthiest, combined with renewed emphasis on issues that really concern voters such as schools, jobs, healthcare and housing. Get this message right, back it with courageous policies and there is still room for some sunny optimism.

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