Martin Le Jeune, Open Road: Powerful barriers to jump

David Cameron has shown that a combination of clever leadership and fine words can deliver.

Martin Le Jeune, Open Road: Powerful barriers to jump
Martin Le Jeune, Open Road: Powerful barriers to jump

In a touching (or perhaps vomit-inducing) moment in his party conference speech, David Cameron told the story of the little girl who had sent her £1 tooth fairy money as a contribution to help reduce the deficit. If the urgency of political action on the national finances has impacted on primary school pupils, the coalition's communications must be even more impressive than anyone suspected.

In my essay in PRWeek's first public affairs supplement this year, I argued there would be powerful barriers to an incoming Conservative government. Namely, the inertia of the civil service; the truculence of public sector unions; the difficulty of achieving rapid change in the public sector even with a fair wind, and the problem of a potentially rebellious back-bench party.

Of course, a coalition is not the same as a pure Conservative administration. But in practice, the additional difficulty of keeping the junior partner on side has, so far, been less of an issue than one might think. Not only do the Liberal Democrats provide some air cover for a regime of deep cuts in expenditure, but they are also locked into the agreement by the fear of an early election, which might see them badly hurt as a party.

The other barriers have not gone away. But Cameron has shown that a combination of clever leadership and fine words can deliver.

Civil servants like clear direction and a sense of purpose. Cameron, George Osborne and, internally, Francis Maude have offered that in a whirlwind of activity harnessed to the idea of a national mission to save the economy from disaster. Officials love that sort of stuff. Eventually, they will run out of energy and start moaning again, but for the moment Cameron has them on his side (some quangocrats excepted).

And blessed are the public sector unions, for they are a Conservative's best friends. While the Government can talk of pulling together and reaching out to public sector workers for their ideas, the usual seedy bunch of tub-thumping general secretaries can trot - pun intended - out arguments that were wrong in the 1970s and are even less convincing now. Conservative HQ should get them on the Today programme as often as they can.

Talking of which, the dominance of the news by the BBC remains a tricky issue for the Government. Technically, the BBC is doing everything it can to avoid obvious bias in reporting. What matters more is the corporation's long-term instinctive adherence to the belief that government spending = investment = a Good Thing. Nothing to be done about it: it is inevitable while the licence fee, and the culture it spawns, remains.

And the Tory MPs themselves? If they can forgive Cameron for failing to win an overall majority when all the cards seemed stacked in his favour, then surely they can swallow anything. So far, they have basked in the novelty of power after the wilderness years and reached out to their Lib Dem colleagues like social workers with a problem family to help.

That won't last. Cameron has succeeded so far because he has told it straight, appealed to patriotism and got a majority of the population behind him. But the Blitz spirit is deceptive. This isn't a real shooting war and turning the economy around for sustained growth when the rest of the world isn't importing our stuff is a lot harder than seeing off Adolf with the Yanks and the Russians coming in to help.

'It's the economy, stupid' has become a cliche. But it is the truth. Winning the next election is not just about getting through the dark valley of cutting the deficit, it is about climbing to the sunlit uplands beyond. On that Cameron will be judged.

Martin Le Jeune is a director at Open Road

VIEWS IN BRIEF

- Which public sector budget cut is likely to be the toughest for the Government to push through?

The NHS. Protected, unjustly, for now, this will be a big U-turn when it comes.

- Who would make the better lobbyist - David or Ed Miliband?

Ed. No real ideas, but a smooth manner, making him popular with opponents.

- Which public sector organisation has made the best case for ringfencing its budget or minimising any cuts?

The Royal Navy. Suggesting the cuts would mean sharing an aircraft carrier with the French of all people was a master-stroke. The Battle of Trafalgar still has some resonance with the general public. Did Nelson die in vain?

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