The Government, well, Number 10 actually, is in a quandary. On the one hand, there is a need for quick wins to move on from what has memorably been described, in the words of Malcolm Tucker, as an omni-shambles. On the other, the Prime Minister is presiding over a period of austerity. The two, unfortunately, are not compatible.
At first austerity measures were seen as essential to return to economic growth, but the implications of this are now starting to bite. The quick wins on their own are not sufficient to change perceptions. If Number 10 is to change perceptions, a coherent narrative, with stories that constantly reinforce what David Cameron is trying to do is required.
As Oliver Wright and Andrew Grice write in The Independent, Number 10 has been looking for good news stories across Government for Cameron to be personally associated with. The hope is that any good news story will move the agenda on from the current post-budget malaise. The problem with this approach is these stories, good though they might seem, fail to form part of a coherent narrative. They do nothing to alter the perception of the Government as overseeing economic hardship.
The prospects for the average voter look bleak. Less money. More tax. Later retirement. That’s before you put it in the context of a class war. Philip Collins notes in his excellent article in The Times that Number 10 needs to communicate that all this pain is not for nothing. Collins should know the merits of communicating a long term ambition, having been present as Tony Blair struggled to come to terms with what his legacy ought to be. Cameron is now at this same juncture. Collins has written the basis of what Cameron’s narrative might look like:
“The first [pledge] is that we will restore this country to economic health. We will clear the horrible mess in the public finances that was left once the other side had finished its irresponsible partying. We will get Britain moving.
“The second commitment I can make is that the burden of austerity will be shared out fairly. By the end of this Parliament, it will be clear that those with the broadest shoulders will have taken most of the weight. We all have to make a contribution in accordance with our means. That is only fair.
“That leads to my third pledge. When prosperity returns to Britain, which it will, the hard-working families, those who are digging us out of a hole they were thrown into, will see the benefit.”
It is fair to say that the first point is well understood and well communicated. Credit where credit is due, the messages on this point were relentless and the Conservatives and George Osborne in particular should take credit for successfully undermining Gordon Brown’s economic record and mentally preparing voters for economic hardship.
Number 10 and the Treasury have acknowledged that the second point above is important, but they have been unconvincing in their attempts to convince the electorate that the burden is being shared equally.
The third element, which promises light at the end of the tunnel or, put another way, hope, has been non-existent.
Number 10’s communications can’t simply be seen through the prism of points one and two. Moreover, the economic legacy that this Prime Minister will leave behind will belong to George Osborne. The promise of a better future however is absolutely critical and has thus far been forgotten. If Cameron is to leave a legacy of his own, then he has to convince voters that under his stewardship a better future lies ahead.