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“2014 is when we start to turn Britain into the flagship post-Great Recession success story. A country that is on the rise.”
– so David Cameron writes in The Times this morning. The Prime Minister uses the New Year as his opportunity to announce the next phase of his plan for the nation – first came rescue, then recovery, now we have the rise of the UK – an optimistic narrative to open 2014.
There are several notable elements in the article.
The first is that tone of optimism – a contrast with Labour’s gloom and Nick Clegg’s scaremongering over the possibility of leaving the EU. It’s a return to a traditional Cameron theme, and a welcome move to the Politics of Yes.
The second is that he makes clear how he intends to deal with Ed Miliband’s challenge over the cost of living. It’s implicit, not explicit (indeed, the words “cost of living” aren’t mentioned). Instead of trying to fight on Labour’s interventionist turf, the Conservatives will seek to tie living standards in to their own strong point: economic growth.
The Prime Minister believes Miliband has drawn an artificial distinction, hence his repurposing of a memorable phrase from the depths of the economic crisis:
“During the recession I insisted we were all in it together. As we recover, let me be clear: we are still all in it together. The question now is how we move forward and make sure Britain and its people rise.”
Another old slogan would sum up the approach equally well: sharing the proceeds of growth. A Britain on the rise must, he argues, mean a rise across the board, including rising youth employment and rising educational standards.
Third, while this is an optimistic message it is optimism with a harder edge than his era of huskies, well-being indices and smoothie bars.
The vision of a “country on the rise” includes some traps for Labour. For example, there will be legislation on budget responsibility – in effect, a dare to Ed Balls over whether he would scrap it to return to the bad old days of endless borrowing.
Similarly, the Cameron reminds us of what happens when Labour economics is put into practice:
“If you doubt how disastrous a return to Labour-style economics would be, just look at countries currently following that approach. They face increasing unemployment, industrial stagnation and enterprise in free fall. The opposite of what’s happening here.”
(He’s too diplomatic to specify, but one of those countries is France – and Conservatives would do well to point out how badly Hollande is doing as regularly as possible.)
Fourth, he’s keen to appear in control, apparently conscious of the criticism that his Government has too often been tactical rather than strategic. There are three references to his “long-term plan” – I suspect we’ll hear plenty more of that before the year is out.
Fifth and finally, he makes a first attempt at walking the messaging tightrope I mentioned earlier this morning – the need to demonstrate success, but the risk of voters assuming it’s safe to return to Labour’s largesse:
“Our recovery is real, but it’s also fragile, and there are more difficult decisions ahead. A return to that economic madness would devastate this country.”
This article is the crib-sheet to his campaign plan – now we must see whether he sticks to it, and if it survives contact with events and the enemy.