Observing Tory MPs in the House of Commons last week was a very strange experience. Despite the continued and desperate economic news – meaning tough times for struggling families and businesses across the country – Conservative MPs had a look of a group of people who were breaking out the champagne, putting their size nines on the desk, certain that an election win is in the bag for the Tories in 2015. The fact that their party failed to win the last election has been quietly forgotten of course. Tory MPs have also forgotten that the first rule of politics is “it’s the economy, stupid”, but their complacency and their arrogance comes from the very top. David Cameron, egged on by his own backbenchers, has made another reckless gamble this week.
On Friday we learnt that the British economy is going backwards, shrinking at the end of last year. David Cameron was warned two and a half years ago that our recovery was fragile – that cutting too deep and too fast would put that recovery at risk – yet the Prime Minister complacently claimed that Britain was “out of the dangerzone”. The Tories and the Lib Dems were keen to talk about “Labour’s economic legacy” in 2010. Well the facts are these: the UK economy was in recovery in 2010, with economic growth being recorded in the last two quarters of 2009 and in the first three quarters of 2010. In stark contrast, today national output has contracted for the fourth quarter in the last five (with the only quarter to see any growth due to the one-off boost provided by the Olympic Games).
As the respected Economics Editor of the Guardian, Larry Elliot, put it last week:
“During the 2012 as a whole the economy registered no growth at all. Nothing. Zilch. A big fat zero. The only thing that has grown has been the list of ministerial excuses for the economy’s stubborn failure to live up to their rosy expectations.”
The truth is David Cameron and George Osborne are a couple of reckless gamblers.
They took office with a recovery underway and borrowing coming down. And they decided to cut spending and raise taxes too far and too fast. That mistake choked off the recovery, and is that is why the Government is borrowing £212 billion more than they planned.
Nearly one million young people are out of work and for working families across Britain prices are going up faster than wages. But what did Britain’s Prime Minister spend the week doing? Banging on about Europe. Yet even when it comes to talking about Europe, Cameron wasn’t focused on the urgent change Europe needs now – like getting the European Union to focus on jobs and growth, or completing the single market, or making sure that member states can determine their own industrial and regional policy.
Instead, Cameron is talking about a referendum in 5 years time. When quizzed by Andrew Neil on the BBC’s Sunday Politics, the Europe Minister David Lidington couldn’t list a single thing that the British Government is seeking to renegotiate. Yet a referendum commitment now risks putting business investment on hold while firms wait to see if we are in or out of the world’s biggest market. Now, of all times, is not the moment to put up the ‘closed for business’ sign above Britain.
The fact is the Prime Minister’s speech on Europe had nothing to do with the national interest and everything to do with his fear of UKIP and his failure to lead his own party. In the same way Cameron’s bounce in the polls after the ‘veto that never was’ quickly evaporated, Cameron should have known that his desperate ploy on Europe won’t work in the long term. Outright hostility towards Europe is in the DNA of most Conservative MPs and indeed a big chunk of the Cabinet. Early birds will have heard Defra Secretary Owen Paterson on Farming Today last week refuse to answer whether or not Britain was better in or out of Europe. Tory MPs don’t support an in-out referendum because they want to be in, they support it because they want to get out. For this reason, the political management difficulties for the Prime Minister are only just beginning.
And having spent the week talking to themselves about Europe, the Tories have spent the weekend talking to themselves about the leadership. According to the Sunday Times, more than 100 Tory MPs have been approached by a campaign team promoting Adam Afriyie for leader, if and when Cameron loses the next election. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the Prime Minister. How quickly Wednesday’s cheers have faded.
But this week showed once again that it’s working families who are paying the price for Cameron’s weakness. Britain desperately needs a Prime Minster focused on the economy. A One Nation leader bringing the country together to begin the big changes that our country needs – like a proper plan for jobs and growth, sorting out the banks and ensuring we have an economy that works for working people. Instead we’ve got a weak Prime Minister forced to indulge his own party on Europe. And once again he and his Chancellor are taking a reckless gamble with our economy when we can least afford it.
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and Vice-Chair of the Labour Party