David Cameron’s tour de force: thanks, but no, thanks

J and I must be among the very few who watched all 67 minutes of David Cameron's speech to the Tory party conference on television yesterday. Presentationally, as today's commentators all agree, it was a tour de force, delivered fluently and without hesitation (and almost, but not quite, without repetition or deviation, as required by the radio show Just a Minute).  No autocue, no text: just a few notes on a small stand to which Cameron referred only occasionally.  He prowled the stage, speaking conversationally, almost as if thinking aloud, a model of persuasive and likeable 21st-century oratory which practitioners of old-fashioned formal debating would do well to study.  He was constantly interrupted by bursts of clapping by a rapt audience of the Conservative faithful:  cut-away shots of some of them, gazing up at their Leader with something like adoration, did their party's image no favours.  Almost every punchline drew applause, polite rather than enthusiastic in most cases;  so it was all too noticeable that he was met with an uneasy silence when he praised the contribution of immigrants to British society and called for restraint in discussion of the issue:

I think this country has benefited immeasurably from immigration.  People who want to come here and work hard and contribute to our country.  I think our diverse and multi-racial society is a huge benefit for Britain … I want our Party, a modern Conservative party, to talk about this issue in a reasonable, humane and sensible way and to take the very sensible measures that are necessary.

They didn't seem to care for that.

There were other positives, music to the ears of Old Labour characters like me:  abolition of 'pointless' Identity cards;  elected mayors for our towns and cities;  the rather vague suggestion that more powers should be devolved to local government (easier to preach in opposition than in office).  These were guardedly applauded.  But so were many other points that ticked all the old discredited Tory boxes:

  • "get out of the European Social Chapter" — so that British employers can exploit their employees more ruthlessly than any other employers in Europe;
  • "we will keep pushing for that referendum, campaign for a No Vote and veto that Constitution" (he meant the new EU treaty, which is explicitly not a new constitution) — making us once again the odd man out in our own continent, sabotaging much needed procedural reform to adapt the EU to its new enlarged membership;
  • "it's time with local government to tear up rules and all the ring fencing and the auditing and actually say to our local councils, it's your money, spend it as you choose..."  —  tear up the auditing?  Really?  Even a Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer might gag on that, surely?
  • "'Deporting people for gun and knife crime', you can't do that because of the Human Rights Act", and "they will keep the Human Rights Act that actually hinders our fight against terrorism" and, worst, "we will replace the Human Rights Act" — when he must know that with or without the Human Rights Act, we are and will remain bound by the European Human Rights Convention for which Britain was largely responsible in a more enlightened age;  so these false allegations against the Act are sheer reckless Blairite/Blunkettite populism;
  • "How can it possibly be right that magistrates can only send someone to prison for a few weeks rather than a year?  Yes we need to scrap that early release scheme in prisons..." — so the solution to the problem of our bursting prisons, holding more in proportion to population than any other comparable European country, is not to move those many who never needed to be sent to prison in the first place and to ensure that inappropriate imprisoning of offenders is reduced, but actually to send even more people to prison and keep them there!
  • "the time has come for National Citizen Service where we say to 16 year old 'we have got a compelling programme that is about the transition from youth to adulthood, that's about your responsibilities in society, that is about community service, that will challenge you'… this sort of National Citizen Service for 16 year olds can teach young people the self respect and the social responsibility that we really need to make our society stronger…"  —  Compulsory National Citizen Service, Mr Cameron?  How many 16-year-olds will sign up for it if it's voluntary?  Will candidates for university be exempt or will they have to do it after graduating?  How much will these youths be paid while doing their National Citizen Service?  How long will they have to do it?  What will it cost the taxpayer?  Above all, what will they actually do?  Provide cheap labour, without union or other employment rights, for government-approved and subsidised employers?  This is not even half-baked.  It's raw, and raw rubbish.

There's plenty more like this which doesn't bear scrutiny. 

So beneath the relaxed, liberal, conversational style, the substance of this speech was largely a reversion to the kind of Michael-Howard, Iain-Duncan-Smith, William-Hague reactionary Toryism that has lost them three elections in a row.  But it's questionable whether much of the objectionable small print — and I have singled out just a selection of the worst of it — will impinge on the consciousness of the ordinary swing voter in a marginal constituency or whether it will be reflected in this week-end's polls.  More likely Cameron's youthfulness, energy, fluency and apparent sincerity (currently re-labelled 'authenticity' by the commentariat) will make a more favourable impression than his real message deserves.  Let's hope that it will impress enough of the handful of people whose views determine the opinion polls' findings to drive Gordon Brown off his crazy plan to hold an election this year, an election which would be unwanted, unnecessary, unconstitutional, and unlikely to do anything but harm to a premiership which has begun so much more promisingly than most of us had dared to hope.


6 Responses

  1. They’re all in on it together Brian, you know that.  They’re out to screw you, they’re out to screw me, they’re out to screw anyone who gets in their way!  Everything else is window dressing.  The compulsory national service is a lovely idea though, especially for an electorate eagerly calling for an even more authoritarian state!

  2. Phil says:

    "Unconstitutional"? I'll be shocked & dismayed if they do call an election this year, but I wasn't aware the implications were *that* bad.

    Brian writesBearing in mind the still extant (although not used for many years) power of the monarch to refuse a request from a prime minister for a dissolution on the grounds that fresh elections are unnecessary for the continuance of the Queen's government (e.g. if the prime minister has an adequate majority and can secure supply, or if someone else is available to form a viable government  without the need for premature elections), it seems to me legitimate to say that it's unconstitutional to ask for a dissolution when none of the traditional justifications for a premature election applies and when the sole purpose of the request seems to be to gain party advantage — or, as apparently in this case, to pre-empt later party disadvantage.  Some authorities of course argue that this personal power of the monarch to refuse a dissolution has withered away through desuetude, and that to try to exercise it now would provoke a major constitutional crisis, but this need not be so, in my view.  If the Queen's principal private secretary were to invite the prime minister's private secretary to lunch (a regular event anyway, I imagine), and were to give him a friendly informal hint over the port that strictly between themselves Her Majesty was very anxious to avoid any sort of conflict with her PM or any kind of crisis, but that she was deeply worried about the justification for a fresh election so soon after the last one, with all the expense and upheaval it would entail, and wasn't at all sure where her duty would lie in the event of the PM putting a formal request for a dissolution to her, so she was hoping against hope that this very awkward situation wouldn't arise, although obviously she wouldn't dream of allowing her misgivings to become public in any way…

    I wouldn't be totally flabbergasted if something of the sort wasn't happening at this very moment!  We'll know that it hasn't happened, of course, if GB asks for and is granted his dissolution, although in my view it will be a major political blunder if he does, and is. Meanwhile we have no constitutional court able to rule on the constitutionality or otherwise of the thing.

  3. Robin says:

    Your reply to Phil is, unusually, a palpable and unsuccessful wriggle. What you are now saying, at great length, is that it would not be unconstitutional for the Queen to refuse a dissolution (debatable), still less to hint that she might. Which does not mean that it would be unconstitutional for the PM to ask for one, for any reason that might occur to him, still less that an election would, in itself, be unconstitutional.

    All the same, I agree that we are all better off without one.

    Brian writes Robin, I'm surprised to see your emphatic disagreement with such a straightforward proposition, especially as your dissent is based on a simple assertion that if the Queen has the right to refuse a dissolution, ergo the prime minister has a constitutional right to ask for one for any reason that might come into his head — a resounding non-sequitur, in my book, especially when you describe the premise as 'debatable'! 

  4. Robin says:

    Of course, I didn’t say that – read again.

    I was replying to your piece that starts: "Bearing in mind the… power of the monarch to refuse…a dissolution.. it seems …legitimate to say that it’s unconstitutional to ask for a dissolution when……

    Now if ever I heard a non sequitur, that’s it! What does the power of the monarch to refuse (debatable or not) have to do with the PM’s constitutional right to request?

    Of course, the Queen has a right (not at all debatable) to offer the sort of advice/comments that you suggest she might (have) do(ne). But I can see no ground  for supposing that a request from the PM, whether refused or granted, would be unconstitutional – leave alone for suggesting that the election we nearly had would itself have been unconstitutional.

    I agree with all your other points; I think you should back off from this one.

  5. Brian says:

    Oh, dear.  We’re in angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin country here, Robin.  If you re-read yet again the whole of the passage of my earlier comment on which you are relying, you’ll see that I started with the words "Bearing in mind…" — not  "Because…".  The connection with the unconstitutionality of requesting an unnecessary dissolution, i.e. one at a time soon after the preceding election when the existing government is well able to continue with a secure majority, ability to obtain supply, and no radical or sudden policy change requiring reference back to the electorate, was not the existence of the Queen’s power to refuse it, as you imply, but the existence of criteria constitutionally available to the monarch by which to judge whether to accede to or to refuse the request.  I continue to hold that those criteria define the circumstances in which a request would not be constitutionally proper — since they also define the circumstances in which the monarch would be within her or his rights in refusing it.

    What’s more, a prime minister would be acting both imprudently and improperly, if not also unconstitutionally, in formally putting to his or her monarch a request that risked obliging the monarch to refuse it, thus potentially precipitating a political and constitutional crisis that might eventually threaten the survival of the monarchy.  Of course, some might think…  no, no, perish the thought.


  6. Robin says:

    O.K.: I have no desire to get into a semantic argument over the difference between "Bearing in mind" and "Because". But I continue to think that your use of "unconstitutional" was unsustainable, being lacking in any warrant that might be conferred by precedent or by any accepted constitutional authority.

    In any case, the proper body to decide whether calling an election would or would not, in a broader sense have been proper, is, of course, the electorate. It is very likely that if GB had gone ahead, the electorate would have agreed with you (and me) that this was an otiose and undesirable election called for inadequate/unacceptable reasons, and punished him accordingly. The last thing anyone needs is a lot of would-be lawyers arguing about constitutionality in a country with only the vaguest idea of what a constitution is, or a Queen trying to second-guess what the electorate might decide (which, to do her justice, I can’t see her doing).