Cameron’s brave boasts ring hollow: the Tories are failing to back British business.

by John Woocock

David Cameron has faltered abroad of late because under him Britain lacks a coherent foreign policy to guide it, as Douglas Alexander cogently set out in the Observer yesterday.

But yesterday the prime minister’s incoherence spread to the home front. Cameron’s speech to the Conservative spring conference highlighted a weakness in his leadership and the government’s economic position that is worth dwelling on, beyond the two lines of rebuttal to which such orations are usually treated.

The foreign policy section of the speech bad enough. Was there really a single true blue activist in the Cardiff hall, never mind anyone in the rest of the country, convinced by the notion that the key difference between Labour and the Conservatives in foreign affairs is that we do “dodgy deals with dictators” while they are primarily interested in volunteering to build schools in Africa? And if any Cameroon speechwriters read Labour Uncut (They do – Ed.) let me help you out: if you are going to force that kind of absurd contrast on your audience, don’t then segue into a eulogy of Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy principles. Some would say she ended up being a teeny bit too close to a dodgy regime or two herself, as her friendship with General Pinochet and reluctance to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa showed (which latter Mr Cameron himself adversely criticised back in the days that he wished to project himself as a break from Tory tradition).

But it was in the prime minister’s remarks about the economy and how to boost enterprise that the paucity of the Conservatives’ strategy for government was really exposed.

On growth, the speech was billed as showing that there is more to the Cameron-Osborne financial strategy than rapid deficit reduction.

He ended up showing the opposite. The PM talked up the importance of being the country’s chief salesman of fine UK manufacturing. Absolutely right. But the example he picked, Airbus at Broughton, left himself open to the charge that Britain may one day have very little left to flog unless he changes tack.

For the success of the UK aerospace industry he wants to champion is founded on the approach he trashed as ineffective and unaffordable in the same speech: very active engagement with industry backed up with substantial targeted investment from the taxpayer to secure high skilled manufacturing jobs and big returns further down the track. I was an adviser to John Hutton as business secretary when the last Labour government agreed £60 million of launch investment to help ensure the groundbreaking composite wings for a new generation of civil aircraft were manufactured in the UK. Without it, we were clear the industry would not succeed here and would probably go elsewhere.

Would a Conservative government have pulled out all the stops back then? I doubt it. Would they now if a similar set of circumstances presented itself? Very little chance. The refusal of ministers to countenance such action, be it in aerospace, automotives or whatever, may well let pass the opportunity to secure the next generation of jobs crucial to our future competitiveness.

So, denying himself the use of this critically important lever, the prime minister falls back on picking a fight with that skulking “enemy of enterprise”, the town hall planner. He won’t let that pesky planning system get in the way of business. But isn’t that the same planning system that the Tories want to beef up to give local people the power to say “no” to whatever they don’t like? Aren’t such objections, perfectly valid though they may be, greater contributors to planning delay than this caricature of public sector oxygen thieves who spend their days wilfully thinking up new planning bureaucracy?

Many will be interested if the Tories now genuinely want to streamline the system, but ministers ought to acknowledge they have been placing a very different emphasis on the issue for some considerable time.

None of this incoherent fumbling about is likely to inspire confidence in businesses desperate to get back to growth.

David Cameron and George Osborne may have recognised they have failed so far to find the right track to take Britain back to prosperity. But the problem is that an errant driver will not get back on the correct road by minor shifts of gear, nor by faffing about with the dashboard coupled with an occasional abusive shout at other road users.

If you are going in the wrong direction, at some point you have to change course. And the sooner the better. The gap between that stark economic reality and the rhetoric that David Cameron is using to divert attention from it is leaving him vulnerable in a way he has rarely seemed since taking office.

John Woodcock is Labour and Cooperative MP for Barrow and Furness and a shadow transport minister.

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One Response to “Cameron’s brave boasts ring hollow: the Tories are failing to back British business.”

  1. Tacitus says:

    These Tory pronouncement that they want to encourage private enterprise and stimulate growth are sounding rather shallow. I work in the welfare to work sector, getting unemployed people jobs. The trouble is, how can you find people these jobs if the companies aren’t recruiting?

    There are no new businesses, and the old ones are remaining stagnant. Meanwhile unemployment is starting to rise.

    The whole Tory strategy just doesn’t make sense.

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