Peter Hoskin

Cameron’s gloomy brand of optimism

Cameron's gloomy brand of optimism
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A weird, sprawling kind of speech from David Cameron in Davos this morning. It started off on an unusually, if expectedly, gloomy note: all talk of Europe's debt-induced decline in the face of competition from India, China and Brazil. And he emphasised, of course, that Britain would, and should, stick to its current trajectory of "tough" deficit reduction. But it's where it went from there that was more striking still.

Cameron contrasted his position with that of "the pessimists". These people, he claimed, have a charter which includes propositions such as, "we in Europe are incapable of solving our debt and deficit problems," and, "we're attached to liberal values that are leaving us far behind the juggernaut of authoritarian capitalism". Whereas for Cameron there is nothing true nor self-evident about any of that. What he's doing instead, he claimed, is making the case for optimism. "We can overcome these problems," is how he put it, "but we do need a change of direction."

The Prime Minister then proceeded to outline the, erm, change that Europe needs. And, funnily enough, much of it looked like the policies of the coalition government. The EU should, he said, set about cutting its deficits as swiftly as possible. And there should also be a one-in-one-out rule for new regulations, and more rigourous stress tests for the banks, among other measures. Much of which sounded sensible enough to my ears, but I doubt European leaders will see it quite the same way.

At times, Cameron's rhetoric towards Europe was unforgiving. "Jacques Delors," he observed, "once said that nobody can fall in love with the single market – and, frankly no one ever will if we carry on like this." Elsewhere, he sounded strangely reminiscent of Gordon Brown. If other leaders succeeded in following his plan, he argued, "we could add up to 180 billion euros to Europe's economy". Where did he get that number from? It is hard to know what to make of it all.

This is not to say that Cameron's speech was bad – just that it was peculiar. Of course, if a Prime Minister is going to set out an action plan for European economies, then Davos is the place to do it. But this was a singular mish-mash of gloominess, optimism, combativeness, bonhomie, specifics and generalities. It rounded off with perhaps the best generality of all: a solid defence of the open society as a spur for growth and innovation. But even that, in the end, was a bit too hurried.