David Cameron: He came, he thawed, he conquered
Man-with-a-mission David Cameron came to Northern Ireland to set out his plan to bring politics in the province into the mainstream. Political Correspondent Noel McAdam watched him in action
As David Cameron bustled his way around Belfast on Saturday, the icy incline up to the Stormont Hotel seemed suddenly symbolic.
For political parties moving their moorings, as with the recast connection between Ulster Unionists and Conservatives, can also prove a slippery slope.
Given the open-to-all opportunity to question the potential next Prime Minister (though people had to apply online) the atmosphere at the ‘Cameron Direct’ event could have been distinctly frosty.
But Cameron came, he thawed and, mostly, he conquered.
In such a gathering, where he has to think on his feet and has no knowledge of the issues about to come up, he again proved to be a personal political de-icer.
Thus he also faced into whether the fledgling alliance can attract Catholics — he cannot see why not — admits the two parties are “taking risks, but risks worth taking”, and argues the real issue over ‘Britishness’ is “what we make it mean for the future”.
He avoids hubris and manages the humour well. As the heat in the small room increases, he whipped off his jacket and conceded it as a “Tony Blair moment” — but he cannot feel the hand of history on his shoulder. Cameron likes to invoke Blair comparisons.
And in talking of the recent election of Barack Obama (another useful reference point) Cameron talks of the “guns and god” element of American politics and laughs when 17-year-old Royal Academy student Corey Kelly, who lives in Belfast, quipped: “God and government? It’s been successful in Northern Ireland for quite a few years.”
He won some converts. A Catholic carer from west Belfast admitted she might be prepared to offer the new partnership her vote.
Afterwards, as he sped to the Ramada Hotel for the Ulster Unionist conference, Cameron told officials it had been one of the best of his personal appearances so far.
Saturday marked the third anniversary of Cameron’s election as Conservative leader and he strode into the UU gathering like he was already close to becoming its new chief.
He invoked the ghosts of murdered “great Conservatives and great Unionists” Airey Neave and Ian Gow, who had both “died for their devotion to the Union”.
But after his address he was immediately whisked away without listening to real leader Sir Reg Empey’s speech, away to spend more time with his family.
It hardly mattered: it was what Sir Reg called a “starting point” and a “good day for unionism”.
As he began his whistle-stop day, Cameron had joked his mother warned him not to get the two events he had over the weekend — the UU conference and an opera of Sleeping Beauty — mixed up.
It may be other unionist parties who need the wake-up call.