A few weeks ago, Peter Cousins and Jackie Tittle enjoyed a day trip to London. Down from the Lancashire town of Skelmersdale, they were lucky enough to meet the Prime Minister during a visit to Number Ten. Peter and Jackie are social entrepreneurs and their company works to improve the lives of people with disabilities. Established in 2005, Brighter Future provides training for disabled folk and recycles mobility equipment such as electric wheelchairs, selling it on at affordable prices.
“The Prime Minister was extremely interested in our work helping people with disabilities gain life, social and practical skills, whilst also preventing thousands of pieces of reusable mobility equipment from ending up in landfill sites,” said Mr. Cousins. He and Mrs. Tittle then returned to Skelmersdale as proud recipients of one of David Cameron’s Big Society Awards.
“Red warning lights are flashing on the dashboard of the global economy,” remarked David Cameron last weekend. The Prime Minister was highlighting, rightly, the plethora of economic and geopolitical risks currently stalking the world, all of which threaten the UK’s fragile recovery.
Referring to a “dangerous backdrop of instability and uncertainty”, Cameron pointed to conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine, ebola, a slowdown among the big emerging economies of the East and, with a flourish, “a eurozone that’s teetering on the brink of a possible third recession”.
Most pundits assume the UK general election will be fought against a strong economic backdrop. The Conservatives certainly hope that buoyant consumer sentiment, including continued rock-bottom interest rates and stable financial markets, will help them secure victory, and even an overall majority, in May 2015.
After David Cameron’s conference speech in Birmingham earlier this month, complete with a promised £7bn income tax cut, some 39pc of voters said it was the Tories “they most trust to manage the economy”, compared to just 19pc backing Labour. It was in the afterglow of that Prime Ministerial speech that the Tories chalked up an overall poll lead for the first time in more than two years. A strong economy, then, will clearly be front-and-centre in any successful Conservatives general election campaign.
In the small hours of Friday morning, when most of my fellow economics scribes were in Washington at the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, I was eating cheese on toast on my sofa. With Labour having just held on in Heywood and Middleton by-election, there was I, like the rest of the UK’s political obsessives, staring at the television bug-eyed, awaiting Clacton’s verdict.
I’m not a Ukip supporter and Carswell isn’t a personal friend. Yet, as I wrote three days after he defected from the Tories, I really wanted the member for Clacton to hold his Commons seat. That because, over many years of talking to MPs and ministers of all parties, he’s one of the few politicians I’ve encountered who has truly grasped the realities of the Western world’s current economic predicament.
David Cameron’s Conservative party conference speech last week seemed to be very smart politics. Certainly, the Prime Minster’s pledged tax cuts electrified the Tory faithful gathered in Birmingham. Conference delegates, having arrived rather downbeat, left their annual party gabfest with renewed confidence the Conservatives could yet win an outright majority at the May 2015 general election.
Many journalists present also rated this as Cameron’s best platform speech since 2005 – when, as a relatively new MP, he transformed himself from rank outsider in the Conservative leadership contest to party-boss-in-waiting. As well as in the conference hall, Cameron’s effort was a hit across the country too. A YouGov poll published on Friday saw the Tories leading for the first time in over two years – posting 35pc support, with Labour on 34pc, UKIP on 14pc and the Liberal Democrats trailing on 6pc, their worst poll showing in over a decade.
Ah! Ed Miliband “forgot” to talk about the UK’s still gargantuan budget deficit at last week’s Labour party conference. That explains it – he forgot! Phew! For a moment, I was worried.
There was I thinking the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition doesn’t care about putting the UK’s public finances back on the straight and narrow. I was concerned he was deliberately ignoring our budgetary predicament, kicking the acute fiscal problems we face even further into the long grass.
Alex Salmond was magnanimous in defeat. “Our referendum was an agreed and consented process and Scotland has by a majority decided not, at this stage, to become an independent country,” said the Scottish National Party leader in his concession speech during the early hours of Friday morning.
“I accept that verdict and I call on all of Scotland to follow suit in accepting the democratic verdict of the people of Scotland”.
The vanquished Salmond, though, despite his gracious tone, was also being arch – and even defiant. The key words in the statement above are “at this stage”. Scotland voted No for now, Salmond is saying, but if asked again in a few years’ time the outcome may be different.
This week marks the start of the media “silly season”. It’s during the dog days of August, when so many of us are away on holiday, that the economic and political agenda tends to slow and newspapers and broadcasters become desperate for anything of interest to report.
With Parliament in recess, and business leaders at the beach, this is the time of year when grown-up journalism takes a back seat, making way for offbeat, bizarre news stories, the weirder the better, anything that will make a splash.
August 2014 won’t be like that. Its strikes me that this year the silly season is cancelled. We’re in for a singularly un-relaxed high summer on the news-front instead, an August of urgent headlines, political intrigue and financial angst.
For a start, global equity markets are on a knife-edge. Throughout 2014, Western share indices, fuelled by central bank “funny money”, have ratcheted up and up. Stock valuations are now historically high, despite weak corporate earnings and the failure of the large Western economies to stage a convincing recovery.
With next month’s European elections looming, and a general election just over a year away, the government is now vigorously trying to shift the political narrative away from the downsides of “austerity” and instead towards the benefits that derive from the prudent control of day-to-day spending.
Last week, a clutch of ministers – including George Osborne and David Cameron – were photographed inspecting building projects across the country, hard hats and high-visibility jackets in abundance. The message was that the coalition is delivering on infrastructure, as the Treasury conveniently published an updated list of major projects set to be completed or started in 2014/15.
George Osborne promised a “budget for business” and that was largely what he delivered. There was a lot in the Chancellor’s fifth budget to please the business community and, on first reading, few specific measures to cause alarm.
Osborne deserves credit for limiting himself to a fiscally neutral package, despite a strong uptick in growth. Even though the Office for Budget Responsibility raised its 2014 growth forecast to 2.7pc, up from 1.4pc at the time of last year’s budget, the Chancellor’s measures amounted to a tiny £0.5bn giveaway in 2014/15, and a small fiscal squeeze over the next 5 years as a whole.