It’s been a day of capitalism in Westminster. Two months ago I watched Richard Branson talk about the end of business as usual. Today, I sat in the same building on the Haymarket in central London listening to David Cameron explain why it was time to ‘build a better economy’. Now was the time for a ‘people’s capitalism’ said a Conservative prime minister– a curious phrase which sounds like China’s economic system. However, don’t think this was a rootless speech lacking any Conservative basis. It actually sounded like David Cameron was prime minister of a Tory government, rather than leading a coalition. Burke, Peel, Disraeli, Macmillan, Thatcher – Cameron’s recent choice of Robin Harris’ history of the Conservative Party as his night time reading showed – and it was from these Tory figures of lore that Cameron drew inspiration in his defence of capitalism.
The second event was the Ed Balls lunch with the Parliamentary Press Gallery. The most notable newsline which came out was the concession from the shadow chancellor, that Gordon Brown infamous ‘we’ve abolished boom and bust’ line was a ‘rhetorical error’.
What links both the PM and Balls is that they are men who have a past to battle with. While Balls repeatedly stressed that it suits the Conservatives to look backwards, he believes it’s the forward-looking party that will win public favour. But as his ‘error’ statement proved, his role at the heart of government in the decade building up to the economic crisis still hangs to him like an unwanted shadow. One wonders whether time is a sufficient healer for Ed Balls in the eyes of the public. He says the polling coming back shows it is less of a problem than the media imagines.
The prime minister also faces a challenge. He talks fluently about building a ‘genuinely popular capitalism’ – without going into too many details. But he also backed the low regulation days of New Labour and he is, as yet, unable to prevent the paying out of bonuses to bankers. We don’t yet see the actions to back up the words. I wonder how effective these established politicians will be at developing their new economic visions when they seemed so comfortable in the old models.