David Cameron’s ‘statesmanlike’ promise on Tuesday to do whatever is necessary to save the nation and reach ‘across the aisle’, as they say in Congress, is one of the dirtiest and oldest political tricks, but no less effective for that. It is an offer which the government suffers from accepting or refusing. Two examples come to mind. One was Tony Blair’s shameless exploitation of the Dunblane massacre of schoolchildren when he was still leader of the opposition. He offered to be ‘united in grief’ with John Major at the ceremony in the town. Mr Major had to agree, and was then comprehensively upstaged. The more relevant comparison here is with Margaret Thatcher in January 1979. As the Winter of Discontent deepened, Mrs Thatcher was persuaded, very much against her instincts, to make a party political broadcast offering to set aside party differences in the interests of industrial peace. Luckily for her, Jim Callaghan, the then Prime Minister, was in no position to accept. But she suddenly moved in people’s minds from being a shrill, partisan figure to one who was fit to be Prime Minister.
Mr Cameron’s intervention also held out the prospect ‘for another day’ of trying to re-examine and regenerate the free-market economy. It was good that he said this, because the Conservative reluctance to engage with the subject indicates a guilty conscience which is not justified. The current world disaster is the result of markets rigged by some bankers, politicians and central bankers, not of a market working transparently and freely. Interesting, though, that Mr Cameron did not use the word ‘market’. He referred instead to our ‘free enterprise system’. One can see why. But it would be a great pity if the word ‘market’ became a negative in political discourse. A physical market is the clearest embodiment of the beautiful idea that people can co-operate, under rules, for mutual advantage. By the way, I think this week (the Today programme, Monday) marked the first time a Chancellor of the Exchequer has used the word ‘nationalisation’ favourably since about 1976.
Mr Cameron got his biggest cheer for saying that we must not handle the crisis like America. But I find plenty of MPs who are envious of a political system in which elected representatives actually have the power to speak for those who chose them. Even though an emergency rescue may be necessary, there is something extraordinarily unappealing about extremely rich people asking much poorer ones to hand over the largest single transfer of wealth from private to public funds in the history of the world. It speaks well for the United States that the idea encounters consumer resistance. When you consider that our Parliament exists primarily to vote supply, it is amazing how it has gradually resigned its role. Money matters have been left to ‘experts’, with almost literally fatal results.
In the old days, it was considered bad form for the Conservative leader to attend his own party’s conference. The presence of the leader, it was thought, might unduly influence the deliberations of the constituency associations. The leader would appear only on the last day, as a guest, to give his platform speech. David Cameron this week finds himself performing a modern, media-conscious version of the same thing. Because of the sudden switch of theme from the Broken Society to the Broke Society, it is considered unseemly for the leader to be seen enjoying himself. He has therefore locked himself in his room and is fed on bread and water, emerging only to speak gravely to the broadcasters. I bump into him on one of these early-morning excursions, and he explains that the circumstances demand an equality of misery. Having failed to attend the reception of one great newspaper the night before, he feels he should apply this austerity policy to all. Party-goers, however, ignore his policy of restraint, and are drinking as if there were no tomorrow, which, indeed, there may not be.
For some reason, hard times are the signal for the return of the tie. All the men in the shadow Cabinet have re-adopted it, and the preferred type of tie is thin and dull red — fat, bright ones being too emblematic of boom. I bought one of these long, thin ones a couple of years ago from Charles Tyrwhitt, and felt at the time that it was too dreary. But now I see that I was a lead indicator of the new sobriety. Only two prominent Conservatives are still tieless this week. One is the arch-moderniser Nicholas Boles, who is like Wittgenstein and Sir James Dyson in hating having any constriction of the neck. The other is Michael Spencer, the party treasurer and king of Icap. Perhaps this shows that he, at least, is still exceedingly rich.
It has been disappointing to find some of one’s fellow journalists here upset by the great crash. They go around with long faces, worrying about how their own finances will be affected. This is unprofessional. Bad news is good news for the media, and we should always be pleased by it, in the same sense that doctors are pleased by the outbreak of an exciting new plague, or soldiers by a good war.
George Osborne made a well-judged speech as shadow chancellor on Monday. But his appearance is still against him when he tries to share the nation’s economic pain. Something about his black curls and pale face make him look like a powdered French aristocrat in 1790 staring affrighted from the window of his carriage as the sans-culottes start trying to turn it over. Mr Osborne is one of those politicians who come alive only in private. Far from being the slightly untried, pampered figure that he appears, he is the most cool-headed and tough-minded of the lot, the best calculator of political advantage. Gordon Brown got away for years as Chancellor with being profligate because he looked like a miserly old sober-sides. Mr Osborne will probably be a genuinely prudent Chancellor, but he needs to find a way of looking more like Geoffrey Howe before he can convince the voters.
One the best restaurants here is called Bank. It is the only one around where people are putting their money in. When it was named a few years ago — the phenomenon has happened in many cities — it added cool and kudos to a restaurant. Now the situation is reversed. If banks restart in a few years’ time, will they gain respectability by calling themselves ‘Restaurant’? Another way of attracting favourable attention might be to make a virtue of past error. If the Paulson plan happens, it will create what people are calling a Bad Bank to deal with toxic assets. Bad Bank would be a good high-street brand name. Instead of the old ‘I’m with the Woolwich’, the slogan could be ‘I’m going to the Bad’.