David Cameron delivered a keynote speech to the Conservative Party Conference for the first time since the formation of a coalition government, at the ICC in Birmingham yesterday. The Tory leader was eager to emphasise his credentials as a Prime Minister for the whole of the United Kingdom, claiming that its four constituent nations are “stronger together, and together is how we must remain“.
The Conservatives formally ditched their pact with Ulster Unionists this week, after a disastrous showing at the general election, but Cameron remains keen that Northern Ireland should play an active role in national debate.
The Tories are unpopular outside England, and the Prime Minister knows that he cannot simply ignore the competing regional interests which devolution has unleashed, if the United Kingdom is to remain strong on his watch.
To this end he spoke of his determination to use “every means at our disposal” to combat an “increased threat” posed by dissident republicans and he attacked the nationalist government in Scotland for releasing the Lockerbie bomber, contrary to British interests.
The Prime Minister also claimed that his apology for Bloody Sunday proves that “when this country gets it wrong, we’ll admit it”. And he commended the work of three predecessors, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, in securing a peace settlement here.
Cameron clearly wants to reach out to people in Northern Ireland, but his message of socially responsible cuts is a difficult pitch, in a region so heavily dependent on public spending.
The Conservatives’ concerns about our addiction to subsidy were evident even before the coalition government was formed. The party’s failure, in conjunction with its UUP partners, to gain Westminster seats here, was widely ascribed to Cameron’s unfavourable comparison of the Ulster economy with economies in the former Soviet bloc.
The Tory proviso remains that, as Northern Ireland’s ’unsustainable’ public sector shrinks, there will be space for private enterprise to flourish, leaving the province’s finances in an incalculably healthier state. In the continued absence of home-grown Conservative representatives, it falls to Owen Paterson to make this argument, selling spending cuts to the public and to a sceptical Assembly.
The Secretary of State’s difficulty is that the axe is starting to fall before the government can make good on positive commitments to Northern Ireland. Although a consultation document on growing the private sector is expected soon, its recommendations will provide cold comfort to those who have already lost their jobs.
The government is likely to recommend that powers to cut Corporation Tax are devolved to the Stormont Assembly. It may also consider a package of measures which turn Northern Ireland into an ’enterprise zone’. Even if such radical surgery can be agreed quickly, however, it will take time before the benefits trickle down to the local economy.
Cameron and Paterson will argue that the coalition must make difficult decisions in a the face of overwhelming debt. Their government is doing the responsible thing and, ultimately, Northern Ireland will reap the benefits. But critics point to other, more straightforward pledges, which remain unfulfilled.
Out of pocket investors at the Presbyterian Mutual, for example, have not yet been reimbursed. The Conservatives indicated before the election that they would quickly resolve the PMS saga, which Labour allowed to rumble on for over eighteen months.
However, another five months down the line, savers could be forgiven for suspecting the promise was idle. Likewise, Sinn Féin’s parliamentary privileges and allowances continue unabated, despite a Tory commitment to terminate payments to abstentionist MPs.
These are sensitive issues and the Conservatives could not possibly be expected to deliver immediately on every pre-election pledge in a coalition government. But taken together they represent a slow start in office for the Secretary of State. Unlike Iain Duncan Smith, for example, Paterson is not considered one of the new administration’s early ministerial hits.
Within Cameron‘s government there are often very visible strains, not just between Tories and Lib Dems, but among colleagues in the Conservative Party, some of whom see spending cuts as an ideal opportunity to hack back the state, while others want more efficient public services to form the bedrock of a ’big society’.
The Prime Minister’s role is to balance the competing factions and ideologies within Conservatism as well as the interests of the two parties which make up the coalition. The deficit is quite properly an overriding concern for David Cameron, but he mustn’t let cuts obscure some of the more positive aspects of his government’s work.
The coalition does have a positive message for Northern Ireland. It is prepared to consider special arrangements in order to encourage entrepreneurship and the private sector. At a meeting during the Tory conference the Secretary of State also indicated that his party could throw its weight behind the integrated education movement.
There is a risk, however, that all the talk of cuts and the fear that they engender will make David Cameron deeply unpopular here, despite all his best intentions. He and Paterson need to show that they understand those apprehensions and that their government is about more than deficit reduction.