The photos of David Cameron in Libya last week are pure political gold dust. They are the images politicians dream of. The shots of Cameron being cheered and applauded were not just shown in the UK but broadcast around the world. David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy look triumphant and victorious but crucially in a good way, not a self-centred way. In a propaganda coup for the Tories, the BBC showed the footage alongside Tony Blair giving Gaddafi a warm embrace; if ever a contrast were more stark, that was it.
It was relatively easy for the Prime Minister to look good in Tripoli last week. It was a savvy move by the No.10 press office and will certainly encourage Conservatives and, more importantly, the electorate. The risk, however, is that complacency sets in not just about Libya, but about the Government here in Britain.
In Libya, fighting is ongoing. Whilst Cameron and Sarkozy were making their speeches (vive Libya!) the once rebel-now-government forces were bombing the towns of Sirte and Bani Walid. Gaddafi’s whereabouts are still unknown. He may well still be in Libya, but there is a chance he has fled. Either way, as long as he is active and free he will be a problem. He may not pose a direct threat, but he still wields power and influence. The speeches and the adulation Cameron offered were stirring and important, but complacency and pre-emptive victory could be dangerous in the long run.
At home, the Coalition faces an important period. Things have calmed down somewhat, and the attacks from Labour have become pointedly less sharp. Ed Miliband’s reluctance to mention the economy too much of late in response to claims made by Alistair Darling in his book show how weak the opposition can be. A recent poll of Labour party members did not give much comfort, with almost 50% saying they did not think Ed Miliband was cut out to be the Prime Minister.
The brief return to Parliament after summer and before conference season has been good for the Coalition, but there is still work to be done. Every policy that has been announced has been strongly challenged and the majority have been drastically changed and adapted in order to pass. To take but on example, the proposed changes to the pensions reform have riled the unions so much that they are holding another day of strike action in November. Labour have been hitting the Government on this even though the proposals were made by Lord Hutton – a former Labour minister. The irony of the pensions issue is that the unions seem just as cross with Labour as they are with the Tories, and see Miliband as jumping on the anti-Government bandwagon rather than being a dedicated supporter.
Above all, the eurozone crisis is getting worse and worse each day. Each morning brings with it a new warning about the fragility of the economy and the chances of defaults. Greece is insolvent and looks more and more likely to default. Italy is teetering, although has been boosted by an austerity deal signed this week. Looking further afield the economy in America is disastrous, with 40% of economists polled in a recent survey predicting a return to recession.
There is a lot of work to be done for David Cameron. He is leading the country at a key time, and he must not make mistakes. He did so in his handling of the riots, and it showed. His handling of the next month is key. It is conference season and a time for the Tories to set out their next steps. It is a time for a statesman like appearance, with the gravitas and severity that the situation requires. In November there will be more protests, with murmurs of another winter of discontent.
There is a real concern among some Tories that David Cameron’s premiership will become dominated by all the wrong things – riots, a eurozone collapse, victories abroad but decline at home and policies that are so heavily attacked and changed that they bear no relevance to their original form.
Now is the time for Mr Cameron to show the party, the country and the world what he is made of. Only a year into his stay at No.10, it is quite possible that the next few months will be Cameron’s make or break moment. Time will tell how he will handle it.