Anyone who listened to David Cameron and Nick Clegg yesterday in the hope of hearing something new will have been direly disappointed. The two leaders of a Government which has just taken a drubbing in a nationwide election went all the way to Basildon and held up production in a tractor factory to repeat the same homilies, in much the same words, that they have said so many times before.
The apparent objective of this strange exercise was to answer the charge that the Coalition has been wasting its time on issues such as Lords reform and gay marriage, when it should be concentrating on the economy. That, at least, was the intended symbolism of an event conducted on a factory floor, in front of a mixed audience of workers in overalls, and political journalists. It also explains Nick Clegg's remarks that he cares much more about the economy and apprenticeships than about creating an elected House of Lords.
Those words, combined with David Cameron's significant choice of phrase, when he said that Lords reform was a perfectly sensible measure for Parliament to "consider", will increase scepticism about whether this long-overdue and often-promised act of modernisation is going to happen under the present Government. And if Lords reform is to go into cold storage, we should perhaps not expect action over gay marriage either.
The other interesting symbolism about yesterday's event is that it was staged in Essex. For politicians, it seems that truly "the only way is Essex". Just a few hours before the Cameron-Clegg double act, Ed Miliband was in Harlow to hold a question-and-answer session and stake his claim that it is Labour, not the Coalition, that is "in touch with people's concerns".
The people that the political leaders want to be seen to be in touch with are the upwardly mobile children of the working class. A large proportion of those living in Essex towns like Harlow and Basildon own their own homes and cars and can afford holidays abroad, though a generation or two ago their families were Labour voters living in council estates. They are the people Margaret Thatcher wooed away from Labour, and Tony Blair wooed back.
It can be assumed that issues like Lords reform or gay marriage do not feature high on their daily concerns, so it makes sense for the politicians to push an economic message when seeking the support of Essex man and Essex woman. It will also ease David Cameron's problems with his own party to let these matters slip to the bottom of the Government's "to do" list.
But there is never going to be a convenient or "right" time to reform the House of Lords. There will be endless constitutional complications and sullen resistance from their lordships whenever it is done. Yet all the political parties say that it is the right thing to do, and the public – when asked – agrees. So the Coalition should get on with it, as promised, and not use the poor state of the economy as an excuse for inaction. The same applies to gay marriage, which is less of a burden on parliamentary time.
The reason that the Coalition suffered such a serious electoral setback last week is not that the public is punishing them for being pro gay or anti life peerages. It is because they are presiding over a time of unprecedented economic upheaval and have failed to explain how rafts of unpopular measures, from student fees to capped benefits to granny taxes, can justifiably sit alongside an income tax cut for those on £150,000 a year.
"What you call austerity, I might call efficiency," the Prime Minister said yesterday. The danger is that the public's answer becomes: "What you call efficiency, we call unfair." Hammering out a message about the economy is a good idea – but there is some way to go.
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