The PM and his deputy’s capital letter-strewn midterm review is a collection of vague aspirations and outright evasions
It will be known as the Ronseal press conference, I suppose. At their joint session in Downing Street to launch the coalition’s midterm review, David Cameron and Nick Clegg were asked if they were thinking of a divorce. Could they promise there would be no breakup, no pulling-out?
They could. David Cameron said that theirs was a full, five-year coalition. Choosing his words with precise, even pernickety care, he said: “We are married, not to each other. We are happily married. This is a government, not a relationship.”
It sounded as if he was trying to deny even the faintest suggestion of Brokeback Mountain-style activities.
“To me this is not a marriage” he continued. “It is a Ronseal deal. It does what it says on the tin.”
Nick Clegg saw the opportunity to chip in with a joke demonstrating how relaxed and at ease he was with his mate – no, his partner – gosh, scrub that – his colleague, Dave Cameron. “A Ronseal deal? You can call it the unvarnished truth!”
We groaned, though not as much as I groaned on reading the midterm review document, which, like the reams of paper pumped out by New Labour – some older readers may remember them – is a collection of minuscule triumphs, vague aspirations and outright evasions. No mention, for example, of the coalition’s complete failure to cope with the deficit.
Like all these documents it is designed to create a fuzzy impression of happiness and goodwill. The cover shows a newborn baby, children’s hands high in the air as the superb education provided by Michael Gove enables them to answer every question, contented old folk playing cards, a multi-ethnic group of children in a playground, a handsome, blissfully happy Asian family, and the backs of three men in protective clothing, their heads literally in the clouds, all hugging each other. What does this indicate? Tories promise gay bigamy for steeplejacks?
As always, the text is sprinkled with capital letters. Capital letters are a substitute for action. Instead you have the Red Tape Challenge, the Penfold Implementation Action Plan, the Energy Company Obligation, something called the Exceptional Talent Visa and the Personal Independence Payment. Plus several others. All governments confuse producing a snappy title with actually doing something. Once you’ve called something the Action Initiative Challenge Strategy, you can flop back and relax.
I was also puzzled by the prime minister’s Dementia Initiative, as asking “who is the prime minister?” is one of the standard tests for dementia. Will trained nurses ask, “now, Mr Cameron, can you tell me, who is the prime minister?”
“I don’t know, you’re confusing me with all these questions …”
But as always, David Cameron makes the whole thing sound terrifically exciting. Britain is in a global race, he told us. So were lots of other countries. Some would sink, and others would swim. So it’s a global swimming race we’re in.
Moments later he said that he and Nick Clegg were the “sheet anchors of the coalition”. So we’re in this global swimming race, but we are swimming with sheet anchors attached to our legs. The whole thing was beginning to sound like a load of sheet.
Throughout this time the Lib Dem leader was staring at him in a glazed sort of way, as if his face had been Ronsealed.
“Golly, that’s exactly what I believe too, but I could never express it so well!” he seemed to be thinking.
The real prime minister’s look was quite different as, when Clegg spoke, he stared to his right.
Baffled, even querulous, the expression seemed to say “who is this possibly crazed person? And why is he standing next to me in the bus queue?”
But it could have been worse. It could have been the Ron Reagan press conference, in which nobody could remember anything, or just the Seal session, in which the two men played God Save The Queen on motor-horns. Either way, we’d have learned as much.