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Davos 2012: Cameron scales improbable rhetorical peaks

British politicians dominated proceedings on day two of the World Economic Forum

It was like Westminster in the mountains. Everywhere you looked there was a British politician. David Cameron lectured the rest of Europe about how to solve the crisis in the single currency under the disapproving gaze of Peter Mandelson, sitting next to development secretary Andrew Mitchell in the front row.

The prime minister had been forced to wait in the wings while his predecessor, Gordon Brown, wrapped up a session with a panel of African leaders. Like the Swiss railway, sessions at Davos are organised with impressive efficiency, but anybody who knew Brown would have bet that he would ensure his session overran by five minutes. He didn’t disappoint.

Cameron asked Boris Johnson to join him on the stage at the end of his speech in order to bang the drum for the Olympics and the mayor of London regaled a bemused audience about the export successes of firms in the capital. Later, Cameron admitted that he would have to get used to being upstaged by the mayor during 2012.

Finally, there was Ed Miliband, overshadowed – as Cameron was when he was opposition leader – by the presence of the PM. Miliband spoke at a lunch in which the participants waxed lyrical about the virtues of the Nordic model – strong yet responsible trade unions, low levels of inequality and gender balance in politics, but declined to make any of his off-the-record comments public.

To complete the line-up of past and present prime ministers, Tony Blair was also in town, but only as a cardboard cut-out at a Bill Gates photocall. It was Blair who established the tradition of a big UK presence at Davos. Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, identified Blair when he was opposition leader as the sort of young global leader he wanted to give a bit of glamour to his annual event. Blair’s tough love, third way approach always went down a storm.

Brown, too, knew how to work a WEF audience, whether it was to call for action on poverty in Africa in the pre-crisis years or to urge a global response to the Great Recession of 2008-09 when development was pushed down the agenda. Davos likes people who come up with solutions to problems, and Brown was a politician who always arrived in town with a plan.

As did Cameron, although there were some who found his call for the eurozone to get its act together a bit hard to stomach. There was a rumour, unconfirmed, that the PM had been lined up to open the meeting on Wednesday night before being bounced out of the gig by Angela Merkel.

If so, that might explain Cameron’s tart remarks on the failings of European policymakers. A more conventional explanation would be that the PM is alarmed by the potential of the eurozone crisis to further weaken a UK economy now only one quarter of contraction away from a double-dip recession.

Cameron had three objectives in Davos. The first was to make his big speech in which he appeared to urge a quasi-Thatcherite package of deregulation and liberalisation for Europe’s ills, and to signal, through his call for a bilateral trade deal between Europe and America, that he has abandoned hopes of a multilateral agreement.

His second objective was to milk the Olympics for all it was worth, showcasing London in the hope that overseas investors will come to Britain. The government is eager to get a return on the £9bn the games will cost.

Finally, he was keen to do some quiet, below the radar lobbying. He lobbied Bombardier not to quit Britain after losing a contract to build new railway rolling stock to Germany’s Siemens.

There were those who considered it something of a liberty for Cameron to be lecturing the rest of Europe about the need for boldness when the economy was going backwards and unemployment rising towards three million.

Phillip Jennings, general secretary of the UNI global union, said the PM’s championing of deregulation was based on a “big, bold lie”. While it was true that some European countries were languishing at the bottom of international league tables for economic performance, those at the top were from northern Europe, where social protection was strong, people were secure to take risks, and paid their taxes.

Pascal Lamy, director general of the World Trade Organisation, was cool about the proposed trade deal between Brussels and Washington. He said he could understand Cameron’s frustration that talks begun in Doha in November 2001 were still in deep freeze, but added: “There is no magic wand. The reasons the multilateral talks are stalled will reappear in bilateral negotiations. Bilateral deals can’t substitute or replace multilateral trade opening.”

The need to complete the Doha round is one issue on which the present and former prime ministers are in full agreement. But relations between Cameron and Brown have never been warm, and the former leader was off the stage and away before his successor emerged from the green room. Despite the hammering he has taken from the press at home, Brown’s international reputation remains high, particularly among African leaders for his work on aid and debt relief, but also amongst policymakers who look back with some nostalgia to the dark days of 2008-09, when Downing Street banged heads together.

The two men who might be the next prime minister approached the event in their own way. Johnson’s turn on the stage was pure knockabout; Miliband went about his business in a low-key manner but will take a higher profile on Friday in a public event on remodelling capitalism. He will then be vying for attention with George Osborne, who will be explaining to a CBI lunch why, despite the lack of growth, his policies are right for Britain. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds