It's all doom and gloom with Cameron and Clegg
You could see what they were trying to do. For the ‘relaunch’ of the coalition, two years after their Downing Street garden love-in, Cameron and Clegg went to a tractor factory in Basildon. Standing in the middle of a circle of blue and yellow-T-shirted workers (sometimes political aides can be a bit too clever for their own good), with the machinery clattering away in the background, the message was clear – we’re at the coal-face, getting down to business, making stuff happen. No more swanning around in gardens in the sunshine.
We were told that the purpose of this Q&A was to focus on the economy. In their opening statements, both the PM and the DPM did indeed talk mostly about it, but given that this was supposed to be a relaunch, the phrases felt tired and repetitive – “we need to rebalance our economy”, “we need a bigger private sector”. Cameron’s communication skills were working hard for him, and his tone and manner delivered these words as if they presented a fantastic new idea. Despite this, the exchanges felt tense. No amount of “over to you, Nick”, “I’d second what David said” or Cameron removing his jacket could disguise that the easy affability of two years ago has long since drained away.
That’s not to say that there weren’t some noteworthy phrases uttered. It has been suggested that proposals for Lords reform is going to be watered down in tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech, and the PM seemed to indicate that will be the case with his cautious phrase that “Lords reform is a perfectly sensible thing for Parliament to consider”, rather than suggesting actual legislation is imminent. He also went out of his way to suggest that his own approach isn’t so very far from that of the new French president Francois Hollande, saying that "What you call austerity is what I might call efficiency”. Clegg, the europhile liberal, couldn’t help piping up at this point to add that “any emphasis on growth, from whatever direction on the political spectrum, is a good thing”.
What was missing was a sense of forward momentum, of grand plans for the future and the drive to make them happen. Cameron attempted it with the statement that: “everything the government does is not just about dry numbers of the economy – it’s about building something in this country”. It was unclear what he had in mind. Little was said to address the election defeats of last week. There was also an uncomfortable sense of history being rewritten – in response to a question from one of the factory workers about differences between the coalition partners, Cameron said that in voting as they did, voters “asked us to work together”. Given that in those five crucial days in May, the Lib Dems held negotiations with Labour as well, the reality was far from as clear-cut as Cameron was trying to suggest.
But above all, this event just felt miserable. The charisma and charm that was so captivating about their al fresco performance in 2010 was completely absent. Until recently, the coalition was enjoying relatively buoyant poll ratings, given the perception of their economic strategy, and a lot of that was down to the personal pulling power of both leaders. If they’re to recover or even improve on that position, Cameron and Clegg are going to need to show us that the sparkle is still there. If today's outing was intended to be the soft opening for tomorrow's unveiling of the coalition's legislative programme, it didn't quite pull it off. The Queen's Speech needs to be a blockbuster.