David Cameron and George Osborne managed to garner more attention for their infrastructure announcement (or re-announcement) today by organising their first joint appearance alone together in four years – and making sure the media were aware that this was the case. The pair haven’t appeared together in public for a while partly because they fear doing so would suggest to voters that the government was run by two chaps from very similar backgrounds; better to dilute it by pitching up with other ministers, hopefully with vaguely different backstories.
But it is also quite impressive that the two men haven’t felt the need to do these joint appearances after questions about splits between them. That’s because those questions rarely arise, and when they do, they’re rarely valid. They have differed over policies including tax breaks for married couples, but never resorted to briefing wars.
They don’t need to do these funny launches where they pretend to get along and everyone in the audience winces. It’s often the thing that a politician is least comfortable with that they focus on the most when doing photocalls. I interviewed Mark Littlewood about his time spinning for the Lib Dems for Radio 4’s Week in Westminster recently, and he made the same point about Ming Campbell, who went to more efforts to show he was still youthful than was perhaps wise.
The relationship between Ed Miliband and Ed Balls requires more joint appearances, too, because the Shadow Chancellor hasn’t always marched in step with his boss. Most recently, Balls appeared to twist the knife a little at a briefing after the Labour leader’s poor Budget response. But he also continually pushed the leadership on its stance on HS2, seeming to set the bar for support a little higher than Miliband would. Osborne himself referred to Labour’s wobble over HS2 today, saying ‘attempts to break the consensus by some politicians have actually not got anywhere because the rest of the political party concerned said we want to go ahead with this’.
As Francis Elliott reveals in the Times today, advisers keep a close watch on any behaviour that could be read as signs of a split, but those who work closely with them also remark on their natural unity. One close colleague tells me that the only time he’s every seen a hair’s breadth between them is when the Prime Minister has, very politely, corrected Osborne on a finer point of economic theory, which reminds everyone in the room who out of the pair has a History degree, and who has a first in PPE. That sounds like a pretty healthy relationship.
What this appearance was really doing isn’t trying to argue one thing or another about Osborne and Cameron: it’s putting pressure on Labour to do the same and make its two top men speak together on economic policy, rather than hiding Ed Balls away. And getting a little bit more attention for a launch that was essentially a re-launch of existing spending commitments, thereby driving home the pair’s message about the economy.