Like a Seance
Glen Newey · Cameron’s Pep Talk
In the conference hall the blue-heads have just been shown a video of Labour’s election ‘Edstone’, as a reminder of disaster averted. For a moment everything goes black, like a seance. The massed jam-makers and xenophobes sit in anticipatory rictus, a suckling pig waiting to gulp down the sweet nectar of platitude. But when the lights go up, it’s only the prime minister, on stage in Manchester to give his annual Tory pep talk.
‘Britain’ and ‘British’ cropped up no fewer than 62 times in Cameron’s speech. Dave’s a builder who likes to build things (ten mentions). So is his mate Gideon, as the nation learned from the speech by the ‘Iron Chancellor’ (one mention) on Monday. In fact the whole Conservative Party’s a builder. The cleavage it habitually exposes, when toiling away on site, between its right cheek and its further-right cheek, has been discreetly veiled at this week’s conference, but it sits brooding, waiting to burst free from its 501s the minute the starting-gun goes for the European referendum – Cameron’s assumption that he’s only halfway through his job may prove optimistic if the sops he plans to wring from Merkel fail, as they surely will, to butter up Tory Eurosceptics.
The Euro referendum gives UK politics a phoney-war air. If only the problem could be fixed by building a wall. But as the late Clifford Geertz once put it, ‘the wogs begin long before Calais’. ‘The mosques of Mogadishu’ have reached ‘the bedrooms of Birmingham’ – and we’re not talking the bedroom of Mr and Mrs Normal in Solihull, looking to spice up their vanilla sex life with a spot of recreational dead-pig abuse (zero mentions, but possibly covered by ‘the extra-curricular activities that teach confidence and build character’). The extremists’ hand has been strengthened by the recent Corbynite jihad, with its ‘terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating ideology’.
By contrast Cameron took time to hail the ‘great Tory reformer’ and fitting heir to the mantle of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury, ‘Michael Gove’, a line he managed to deliver without corpsing. ‘Delivery’ is itself a (seven mentions) continual refrain, as if government were a branch of obstetrics. The prime minister even managed a kind word for Boris Johnson, who’s built bugger all as mayor of London, but no matter. By needling the government over its tax credits hackback and salving neurasthenic little Brits in the party ranks, Boris aims to haul in the large Ukip-lite vote for party leader when Dave goes tits up.
But for now, he remains in harness. Unlike his Labour counterpart he reaffirmed his readiness, as he had on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, to use ‘our ultimate insurance policy’ and kill millions of foreigners. That would presumably be as a tit-for-tat, though on standard deterrence theory that scenario would arise only when the weapons had already failed to do their job. It’s not clear which millions he’d be vaporising – maybe Isis or its successors, a ‘death cult’ that we must ‘eradicate’. In this crusade against death the PM is launching Hunter Killer submarines and ‘a new fleet of drones’.
And it isn’t only in eradicating death that the prime minister’s growing strength of will can be seen. Permanent budget surpluses will be part of the new Britain. Admittedly some people, who may think that the deficit needs to come down, ‘don’t get why we need a surplus’ – including 77 eminent economists. It’s because ‘we should be thinking about the rainy days that could come – just like a family does.’
Apparently the threat made in the Tory general election manifesto to flog off housing association homes is already ‘a promise kept’. The square-circling continues when the PM distinguishes equality of opportunity (good) from equality of outcome (bad). Not the same exam results, or (God preserve) ‘the same salary, the same house’, but ‘everyone having the same shot at them’, just like Boris, George, Zac and Dave.
All in all, he looks well on track for the Promethean hubris to which supreme leaders habitually succumb in their second term.