Ian Birrell: Cameron must now embrace the spirit of the Games

The Olympics should inspire the PM to be bold – and to return to the themes of the Big Society
  • @ianbirrell

Well, that was some party, wasn't it? A fabulous fortnight in which Britain proved it was still a global player, shattering the defeatist stereotypes that have so dominated public discourse in recent years and showing off the real face of our rainbow nation to the world. Now comes the hangover. As memories of the epic exploits of Mo, Bradley and Jess fade into the distance, we must reluctantly return to the painful reality of a country engulfed in economic gloom, battered by the euro crisis and stuck in the quicksand of stultifying stagnation.

Few will feel the pain more than David Cameron, with the cracks in his Coalition growing deeper, his critics more vocal and his party marooned behind Labour in the polls. He is not helped by the idiocy of those supposedly on his own side, whether Liberal Democrats determined to prove coalition politics do not work in Britain or right-wingers doing their best to return the Tories to the impotence of Opposition.

There will be a reshuffle, of course – although one admirable aspect of this Government has been its refusal to chop and change ministers every time it is buffeted by waves, unlike its predecessors. The shake-up will not sway voters, but there is a need to promote successful ministers such as Grant Shapps, Nick Herbert and Greg Clark, while bringing into government some of the talented 2010 intake.

The danger is using the reshuffle to appease the right. Yesterday, there was talk of Chris Grayling being parachuted into the party chairmanship, which would be a strange move after the highly questionable handling of benefit reforms. More to the point, his support for the right of B&B owners to turn away gay couples played a critical role in causing voters to question Tory modernisation in the run-up to the general election.

The key issue for voters is the economy, with Britons struggling in the face of rising living costs and job insecurity. The most successful cabinet minister has been Michael Gove, whose education reforms are becoming entrenched. So how about giving this restless reformer a high-profile cabinet role alongside the Prime Minister and Chancellor to drive through changes in every department – promoting growth, cutting red tape, tackling civil service conservatism and confronting cartels wherever he finds them?

Regardless, a reshuffle only goes so far. Soon it will be party conference season and a return to the tedium of yah-boo politics. Tory strategists take solace from weekend polls putting the party only two points behind its general election result. They say Labour is led by a geeky north Londoner, who is called "weird" in focus groups and has failed to convince the electorate that he is a potential prime minister.

They are wrong to be complacent. This year has seen the Tory modernisation project stymied first by the mishandled health reforms, undermining the idea that the party could be trusted with public services, and then by the startlingly inept Budget, destroying the idea of everyone being in the mire together by foolishly cutting taxes for the super-rich.

Now the Coalition looks shambolic – the Lib Dems contorted by fear after all their failures, the Conservatives sounding divided thanks to shrill voices on the right. The economy is going nowhere fast, while the probable loss of boundary changes that would have made the electoral system fairer further diminishes the prospects of a Tory victory in 2015. The outlook may not be hopeless, but it is undeniably bleak.

If the Government could bottle the Olympic spirit, its problems would be solved. We should note in passing that it was the vision of much-derided politicians that brought the Games here and ensured they were a success. Equally, few have failed to notice the pivotal role played by the 70,000 volunteers, whose friendliness and good humour ensured that they lived up to their moniker as Games Makers.

They should inspire Mr Cameron to be bold and true to himself by returning to the themes of the Big Society. The idea was often poorly expressed, badly executed and became ensnared in arguments over whether it was a snake-oil cover for cuts despite originating in happier economic times. But at its heart was a powerful idea of individuals coming together to determine their futures rather than relying on the state.

This is exactly what we have just witnessed as ordinary people – many from ethnic minorities – offered a positive, progressive and potentially transformative vision of Britain. Even unlikely figures such as Alastair Campbell picked up on this – in thoughtful blogging on the Olympics, he admitted that the problem with the Big Society was not the idea but its execution. It is worth pointing out again that for all the predictable political tussles over playing fields and PE classes, our gold medallists praised the teachers and trainers who inspired them to victory rather than the places where they learned to run, ride and row. People make the difference in our world, not buildings and institutions.

The words "Big Society" produce nervous giggles in government circles these days. But Mr Cameron must be brave if he wants to be in Downing Street when the Olympic Games reappear in Rio. The odds are against this – so far better to govern as though each day is the last, determined to make deep changes for the better, rather than rely on the kind of shallow calculations that corroded faith in his Government.

He must return to the "Maoism" of the first months of his Government. This time, it should be unflinchingly focused on the economy, the plight of the young, the need for more housing and ensuring the cash-strapped welfare state focuses on those most in need rather than the middle-classes, however loudly they shout. Public services must be reshaped around the needs of users, not producers, however dire their threats.

Finally, Mr Cameron must be clear about what he is doing and why he is doing it. All too often there has been a hesitancy about expressing a sense of purpose, allowing enemies to frame the debate. A new jobs Bill will replace the unlamented loss of House of Lords reform. Will this be sold as a mission to conquer the curse of unemployment and help youngsters enjoy the opportunities we took for granted – or seen as Conservative capitulation to the demands of business?

The answer to such questions will help determine the outcome of the next election. Only one thing is certain, as we have seen over the course of those glorious Games – fortune favours the brave.

Ian Birrell is a former speech writer for David Cameron

Twitter: @ianbirrell