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Viewing cable 08LONDON2556, GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS STEALS THE THUNDER FROM
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|08LONDON2556||2008-10-07 12:12||2010-11-30 23:11||CONFIDENTIAL||Embassy London|
VZCZCXRO0185 PP RUEHBL DE RUEHLO #2556/01 2811210 ZNY CCCCC ZZH P 071210Z OCT 08 FM AMEMBASSY LONDON TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0020 INFO RUEHBL/AMCONSUL BELFAST PRIORITY 1134 RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC PRIORITY
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 LONDON 002556 SIPDIS STATE FOR EUR/WE/UK NSC FOR BRADLEY EO 12958 DECL: 10/07/2018 TAGS PREL, PGOV, UK SUBJECT: GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS STEALS THE THUNDER FROM THE TORY PARTY CONFERENCE REF: LONDON 2496 ¶1. Summary and comment. (C) The Conservative Party’s fall conference, which closed the UK political party conference season on October 1, ended with a whimper rather than the expected bang. Turmoil in the world’s financial markets overshadowed Tory leader David Cameron’s attempts to portray his party as the government in waiting. Following the initial vote in the House of Representatives against the Bush Administration’s financial recovery plan on September 27, Conservative Party Leader David Cameron adroitly moderated his tone and the conference’s agenda in an attempt to avoid charges of partisanship. Cameron departed from the conference organizers’ planned program to deliver an emergency statement on September 30 in which he promised to cooperate fully with the Government’s attempts to shore up the UK’s financial markets, offering his party’s full support to help the Brown Government address the crisis, in a deliberate contrast to what the UK media described as political partisanship in the U.S. In the event, the Tory party high command’s initial fears at the start of conference -- that with a double digit opinion poll lead over a tired looking Labour Government, the Conservatives might end up looking hubristic and over-confident - proved unfounded as Cameron battled to keep his conference in the headlines, and his party looking relevant as the eyes of the public and media turned to PM Brown at a time of financial turmoil. ¶2. (C) Comment cont. Conservatives were pleased that their unified front contrasted starkly with Labour’s conference the preceding week, which had been punctuated by in-fighting and an obsession with the faltering leadership of Gordon Brown, but Cameron had to leave Birmingham troubled that PM Brown’s jibe at the Labour party conference -- “now is no time for a novice” -- has gained traction with the voters and given Labour a bump in the polls. Cameron attempted to rebut the charge in his keynote address (ref), but it is clear the inexperience charge is a winner for Labour and that voters, though tired of Labour, are not yet sold on Cameron. Although both parties got what they needed from their annual conventions, Gordon Brown will be the more relieved of the two men that media coverage of the financial crisis has taken the spotlight off his continuing leadership difficulties and off the Conservative Party’s attempts to position themselves as the next Government. End Summary and comment. Conservatives Worry About Over Confidence...at First --------------------------------------------- ------- ¶3. (C) The Conservatives gathered for their annual fall conference in Birmingham with high hopes. Under the banner slogan, “Plan for Change,” this was to be the Party’s chance to lay out its plans to govern, providing the UK media and public with the “meat of its policies” and an opportunity to present itself as a credible alternative to Labour. Polls before the conference found that although voters were definitely tired of Labour and wanted change, there were still lingering doubts about Tory policies and ability to govern. Conservative politicians were under strict instructions from the Tory high command not to turn off voters by appearing too cocky or overconfident. But with a sustained double digit opinion poll lead over Labour, that was always going to be difficult. Cameron’s fears of appearing “to take victory for granted” soon disappeared, however, as financial markets continued to implode. The UK media turned its attention back to Prime Minister Brown, as the only man in a position to actually influence events, and the conference slogan was quickly dubbed “Change of Plan” by wags in the media as Cameron was forced into a radical and nimble rewrite in order to keep the press interested in events at Birmingham. ¶4. (C) It all had started off so differently: on the first day of the conference, speeches to conference delegates as well as a succession of meetings with MPs revealed that although Conservative troops might be sticking to their strict instructions not to appear too cocky in front of a watchful press, this would not stop them from “sticking the boot” to the government. Shadow chancellor George Osborne’s tax proposals were the main topic of conversation on the first day. He hoped to repeat his success of the previous year when his unexpected and highly popular announcement that inheritance taxes would be radically increased had shaken the Labour Government so much that Gordon Brown canceled his plans to call an early election. This time round, Osborne pleased the party faithful with his announcement that any future Conservative Government would freeze council tax levels (a local taxation) for its first two years. Both the LONDON 00002556 002 OF 003 party’s vice-chairman, Oliver Letwin MP, and the editor of the popular website “Conservative Home,” Tim Montgomerie, told us that Osborne’s tax announcement was very popular with party members and would be a good plank for the next campaign. ¶5. (C) By the second day of the conference, the mood had changed dramatically following events in Washington. David Cameron clearly needed to change the narrative to keep the media focus on his conference and to nimbly avoid charges of partisanship. In one swipe, Osborne’s tax announcement was wiped off the front pages (although on closer inspection of the small print, much of the media dismissed Osborne’s plans as unworkable anyway) and even at the conference itself, the main topic of conversation became events in the U.S. Julie Kirkbride, Conservative MP and spouse of former Shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Andrew Mackay, summed up the conference’s real focus by the second day when she told poloffs, “we’re all looking at what you’ll do.” Changing the Narrative and the Narrator --------------------------------------- ¶6. (C) In an adroit reaction to world events, Cameron succeeded in keeping the spotlight trained on his conference by giving an unplanned emergency statement on the economy on September 30, in which he pledged full support to the Government, “in stark contrast,” he added, to the partisanship of politicians in D.C. Later, in a private meeting, a Cameron insider told poloffs that the decision had been taken that it should be Cameron who delivered the speech rather than shadow chancellor George Osborne as private party polling indicated that the public feel Osborne lacks the necessary “gravitas.” Somewhat unfairly, party officials thought, polling indicated that Osborne was seen as lightweight and inexperienced, in part due to his high-pitched vocal delivery. This party insider also revealed that Brown’s charge that Cameron was a “novice” at a time of crisis had gained significant traction with voters. Internal Tory spot polling had found, worryingly for the Conservatives, that contrary to the general consensus, if an election were held the next day, Gordon Brown would be re-elected, albeit with a vastly reduced Labour majority. Tories Still Oppose 42 Day Detention Bill ----------------------------------------- ¶7. (C) Outside the conference hall, Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve was outspoken in his criticisms of the Government, and scornful of Government plans to continue to push through legislation increasing the time suspects can be held, without charge, to 42 days. The legislation has already passed through the Commons after a very close vote and will be voted upon in the Lords this month, where it is certain to be amended, requiring another vote in the Commons. Grieve expressed doubt that the legislation would pass a second time in the Commons. Tories on Foreign Policy ------------------------ ¶8. (C) In further meetings on the margins of the conference hall, David Lidington, Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister for the Middle East, briefed poloffs on his recent visit to Iran which he summed up as “great people, terrible government.” Keith Simpson, another member of Hague’s foreign affairs team who referred to his shadow portfolio as covering “the rest of the world,” and a strong supporter of the Atlantic relationship, said that Cameron’s reaction to world events, and his attempts to moderate the partisan tone of conference, were “spot on,” as did Shailesh Vara, the Conservative Party’s Deputy leader. Vara was equally frank about the party hierarchy’s instructions not to appear cocky, and the “ban on champagne” at receptions in order to avoid charges of hubris - instructions which had proved unnecessary as the financial news darkened throughout the week. Cameron’s Closing Speech ------------------------ ¶9. (C) The conference wound up with a keynote speech by Cameron that, in subsequent press reporting, was viewed as well-judged and providing sufficient, if undetailed, policy discussion to allow the Tories to challenge the Labour claim Cameron is a flash in the pan. He addressed early, and head on, Gordon Brown’s central criticism that with the world in economic chaos, “now is no time for a novice” by arguing that what matters more than experience is “character and judgment” (ref). If Cameron’s aim was to convince the public that he has serious policies and will bring changes, then he LONDON 00002556 003 OF 003 succeeded in the eyes of much of the press. Cameron may have faced criticism that his speech failed to lay out, in specifics, the party’s plans for government but no doubt he is trying to avoid the fate of previous leaders who, having set out a detailed platform far in advance of any general election, later had their best ideas taken by the Labour Government. 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