Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Cameron signals hard times

Herald sketch of Cameron press conference.

The cherry blossom is out early in St James’s Park in Westminster. Through the french windows of St Stephens’s Club people can be seen actually picnicking on the grass across the road, The weather is milder, as if we have turned a corner. There is a promise of change in the air and this is even before David Cameron steps into the room to announce just that. The slogan on the podium, "now for change" foreshadow the man and his message.

Why the Tory leader chooses the private club at Queen Anne’s Gate for his press conferences is a mystery until you realise that when the cameras click they capture him in profile with a portrait of Winston Churchill is hanging in the background. He must like the signal that sends.

This is the first time the grieving father has faced the Westminster media since the death of his son, Ivan, and while these must be difficult days for him, he looks remarkably fresh and ready for business as he thanks the press for giving his family "space and time".

Then he just gets on with it making an easy strike at the BBC by calling for the corporation’s licence fee to be frozen for a year as an example of a public institution "doing more with less". It’s the kind of thing we would do right now, if we were in government, Cameron tells reporters, who shrug with a lacking conviction.
There’s a fine tradition of politicians from Norman Tebbit to Alistair Campbell bashing the BBC as a distraction but if the government does not heed his call and freeze the licence fee it matters little to Mr Cameron right now.

For the Conservatives the next couple of months are all about signals. Attacking the licence fee is just a signal of the kind of belt-tightening to expect from a Cameron government. He is preparing the ground. He has already apologised for his part in the recession but cleverly he also warned that all of us must live within our means, that is get ready for big spending cuts.

He is asked a lot of questions about how cosmetic a licence fee freeze would be compared to £5 billion of cuts in public spending but he sidesteps these courteously.

"I believe it means speaking very clearly and frankly about what has gone wrong and how we are going to put it right. I don’t want to win the next election on some sort of false prospectus that doesn’t recognise how difficult things will be," says Mr Cameron.

He talks fluidly and easily, only slowing to consider his choice of words when answering on the alleged terrorist Binyam Mohamed and on whether he ought to bet on an early election. He can’t remember the correct answer on that one but the journalist asking the question kindly provided the prompt. It could be anytime.
"I want to use the time between now and then to take people with us for the difficult decisions that will have to be taken," he says.

He talks for nearly 45 minutes but in a way that engages the listener. Contrast that with Gordon Brown’s morning press conference with Jose Manuel Barrosso. After four minutes of the Prime Minister’s saving the world, G20 rhetoric everyone had stopped taking notes. With politicians groping for the right language for the times and Mr Cameron is a country mile ahead.

He is only asked one really hard question, about whether those "difficult decisions" will mean tax rises under the Conservatives as well as spending cuts? He replies smoothly that "no responsible leader of the Opposition can promise not to put up taxes". That’s a signal too, but not one Mr Cameron wants to put out before this Conservative spring has properly arrived.

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