It’s true! I have had lunch with both the current and former Prime Ministers since I last wrote. I was in the company of many other political journalists, but there’s nothing like seeing these top statesmen in the flesh, studying their mannerisms and demeanour, in order to form a view of where we are heading in 2013.
THAT BULLINGDON BRAVURA
Whatever he may be feeling inside, David Cameron shows none of the angst and pressure that attended his predecessor Gordon Brown. He peppered his remarks with a number of quite good jokes, the most significant being one about Nick Clegg. He told us Nick would be along to offer his separate Christmas greetings, “although it won’t be very different from mine.” It was an obvious reference to the separate statement Clegg had made on the Leveson Report.
However much discontent there is among grass roots Tories and Lib Dems with their leaders, the Posh Boys retain that easy personal relationship that was displayed in the rose garden on the day the Coalition was formed in 2010.
Talk of the Coalition breaking up next year is foolish. This lot are in it for the long haul as Cameron told us at the lunch. The Autumn Statement showed the government’s determination to move away from current spending (servicing debt and benefits) to capital spending on infrastructure. He claimed that previous Tory governments had not tackled school and police reform. This was being done now said the PM. A Comprehensive Spending Review was being undertaken as was a document outlining Coalition priorities for the second half of the parliament. Whether it will amount to much, we will have to see but the aim is to project forward momentum. That is vital. There is little going on in parliament following the hole created by the absence of the Lords Reform Bill. This creates a danger that the government could be depicted like a boxer hanging over the ropes being pummelled by the economic crisis if Cameron and Clegg don’t keep things moving.
Cameron observed that planning for the second half of the parliament had been made easier by the passing of legislation to ensure the government had a full five years in power. In the past speculation would already be rife about a possible snap election next year.
When that election comes we may not have the Prime Ministerial debates. Cameron told us he felt they sucked the life out of the campaign in 2010. Perhaps he fears the possibility of UKIP leader Nigel Farage forcing his way into the debate on the back of a strong performance in next year’s Euro elections.
Cameron was disappointing when asked about the North South Divide. He waffled about people understanding tough decisions had to be taken. This is a government with a London perspective which makes it difficult for our Tory MPs in the North West like Graham Evans. The Weaver Vale MP was my guest at the lunch. He’s a moderate Conservative and was broadly happy with what Cameron said. However he reflected the widespread grass roots unease about gay marriage. Many of his supporters feared that safeguards for religious communities would be overruled by the European Court of Human Rights.
BLAIR: NO CHANGE
The centrist convictions that delivered Labour three victories were still on display when Tony Blair spoke to us just before Christmas. The “third way” and “centre ground” peppered his remarks.
He left office just before the roof fell in on the world economy. So what did he feel about planned measures to prevent the casino banking that operated during his years in office? He warned against going too far. What about companies paying their proper tax in the UK? He acknowledged the mood had changed but we were none the wiser what he felt about it. Perhaps he’s “intensely relaxed” about it.
Liverpool Council reckon they will have lost £284 million a year since 2010 and are to hold a large cities crisis summit shortly. Mr Blair was asked about this and gave what I thought was a callous answer. He claimed the public services needed more reform, not less. The financial crisis had exposed the need for change. The former Prime Minister advised councils to be innovative.
I always felt Tony Blair was out of touch with Labour’s working class on the issue of immigration. He was responsible for policies which eventually saw a major influx of people from Eastern Europe into Britain. Any regrets that he had not made it clear to people that this would be the consequence of an increase in member countries of the European Union? Immigration was good for Britain said Mr Blair. The Polish community had brought fresh energy to our economy.
This may all be true, and I agreed with his comment that in relation to European policy we must have no empty gestures or empty chairs, but on immigration there was no acknowledgement of the feelings of ordinary people (not bigots) when their communities are transformed and jobs threatened.
Lisa Nandy was my guest. The Wigan MP is already on Labour’s front bench despite her radical views on many issues. She agreed with Blair that the party has to be pragmatic in delivering public services better. But that was not enough. She told me “the world has changed since 1997. People are crying out for a principled stand on the issues of fairness and equality.” She thinks Ed Miliband, who broke from Blair’s New Labour, will provide it.
40 GLORIOUS YEARS!
As the political class are too cowardly to mark the event properly, can I be the one person in the country to raise a glass to our 40 years membership of the European Union.
After Empire, the EU has provided us with a new role in the world as a leading member of a group of nations we helped to liberate in 1945. Let us hope in the next 40 years we will provide that leadership and stop looking at the exit door.