David Blackburn

Is Cameron’s counter-offensive headed in the wrong direction?

Is Cameron’s counter-offensive headed in the wrong direction?
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As James has noted, Downing Street has turned its energies to the big society. Op-eds are being written, airtime used and speeches made. This morning saw the centrepiece: a former Labour donor, Sir Ronald Cohen, has joined the campaign and Cameron devoted a speech to what he described as his "political mission". Cameron was fluent and passionate, determined in shirt-sleeve order. He was not exactly clear, but I don’t think that’s a problem. There is no concrete definition of what the big society is. As I argued yesterday, Cameron has changed tactics and is now using it as a descriptive term of the sort of voluntary and philanthropic instincts his government will support. Cameron needs a barrage of examples of these practices in action, something that he lacks currently.

This sudden activity is a cool political calculation, but Downing Street appreciates that its position is precarious. In the long-run, the government must stand for more than eradicating the deficit. Cameron has defined his politics with the term ‘big society’; if it fails, then so does he. Ominously, it has already been downgraded from 'Big Society': the change to lower case is a small but important distinction, revealing the scope of the premiership's present ambition and confidence. Under the weight of cuts and politically motivated opposition, the idea is in danger of withering entirely. Therefore, Downing Street is prepared to expend political capital and risk David Cameron on the frontline of the debate.

Will it work? Iain Martin argues that the big society has had multiple incarnations and each has delivered ever diminishing returns. It may well work this time, especially as Cameron is eschewing the vacuous abstractions Westminster uses to define such ideas. A mass of practical examples is far easier to sell. But Ben Brogan sounds a clear note of caution: more serious issues are being neglected because Number Ten has picked this street-fight.

Indeed there are. The Tory backbenches are mutinous; their relationship with the whips is fraught, especially over the EU Bill, the health reforms and the AV referendum. Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat ministers plan attacks on banks and university indepedence. Nakedly political councils are winning hearts and minds in the cuts battle. Things are no better in Whitehall. Apparently, elements of the MoD are resisting procurement reform and waste remains endemic. On the international stage, the over-politicised European Union is playing poker with what remains of Europe’s economic strength, and the public grows ever more weary of the war in Afghanistan. It’s said that Cameron hopes the big society will secure his legacy; it’s little early to be talking of such things.