Is holiday Dave really our man of steel?

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THOUSANDS of people signed a petition demanding that David Cameron should be barred re-entering Britain after his holiday in Lanzarote. But he’s back anyway, hauled out of his deckchair by the steel crisis.

The petition said the prime minister presented “a clear and present danger to Britain”. It’s certainly an amusing thought, but really these petitions are in danger of becoming plain silly. I have signed one or two when the cause seemed important, but the trouble is they just keep rolling on, a surfeit of pointless democracy, a ‘have your say’ orgy of internet complaint.

And while the fantasy scenario of seeing Cameron stopped at immigration and told the country didn’t want him back was amusing, this was a frivolous petition.

Perhaps someone should set up another petition demanding that the prime minister stops trying to sort things out and just stay on holiday. Government ministers return from their holidays, no doubt with a great tug of reluctance, because if they stayed on the beach they would be pilloried in the press. They return because to stay would give the appearance of not giving a flying flip-flop for whatever crisis has blown up in their absence.

The big return is all about giving the right impression and seeming to be in control, even when you are not. Nowadays the prime minister could be as in control in Lanzarote or Land’s End as he is in Downing Street; but it gives a poor impression, so back he comes.

Cameron’s business secretary, Sajid Javid, is also scrambling back home from a trade conference in Australia, where his first reaction to Tata Steel’s announcement that it would be selling off British plants was little more than a free-market shrug from his laissez-fair shoulders.

There are a number of reactions to this impending collapse of the steel industry, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn calling for the ailing industry to be brought back into public ownership. If that happened there would certainly be an irony in a Tory government helping to save steel after a Labour government spent billions propping up the banking industry. And it’s fair to wonder if solid steel is not just as important as invisible banking.

Now I can’t claim to understand the ins and outs of the steel industry, although it does seem that we have done less to protect our industry than other countries. This is partly for long historical reasons, and partly because we are tied to the free-market way of thinking.

Maybe that’s the only way to operate nowadays. But the trouble with free markets is that they are free to do as they wish, including ditching a whole country’s steel industry on a spin of the global roulette wheel. Is this a sensible way to conduct ourselves; is this now the only way we know?

A once great industry is struggling towards the fiery precipice, with jobs under threat at the Port Talbot steelworks in south Wales, alongside sites at Rotherham in South Yorkshire, Corby in Northamptonshire and Shotton in Deeside.

The industry has been a molten stew of worry for decades – and it has been getting worse for the past few years and months while this government, like others before it, looks on and dithers.

Steel is symbolic of strength and sturdiness. Britain once led the world in steel and now we are reduced to being the fifth largest producer in the European Union – a sad demotion in the league of steel.

Steel is what you need to get things done and built; there must surely be a rafter or two in George Osborne’s northern powerhouse. The trouble is that steel is expensive and words are cheap, and it is easier to talk up things than it is to produce something; easier to prostrate ourselves before the Chinese and their billions than it is to wonder if China’s habit of dumping cheap steel on the world hasn’t at least in part caused this problem.

On a cheerier footnote, all this does serve David Cameron right. He went on about how people should have their holidays in the flood-hit parts of Britain, and then buggered off to the sun. And now he’s had to fly back from his holiday, which is a shame.

Footnote: Just after this blog was written, Deckchair Dave said nationalisation was not the answer…

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