Sunday lunchtime saw Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander address Liberal Democrat conference. The packed nature of the hall, the fullest it had been so far save for the rally on Saturday night, reflects both the importance of Danny’s role and the interest from many members in hearing direct from him.
What’s really happening with the cuts? How much is fairness figuring? And can Danny present the message successfully? Not being David Laws is a burden that has hung over his early days in office and this speech was his opportunity to establish himself in party eyes as his own man.
“Not because it was easy, but because it was right” – that was his opening refrain, name-checking many party favourites who had taken tough rather than easy choices over the years, including Charles Kennedy’s opposition to the Iraq war. That too was his description of what the party has been doing since the general election.
Notable in his list of party achievements was the heavy applause received for his reference to raising the basic income tax allowance on the way to achieving the party’s goal of a £10,000 allowance. It received more applause even than many of his digs at Labour’s financial legacy, such as highlighting that “For every four pounds Labour spent, one pound had to be borrowed”. The speed with which that £10,000 target will be reached has not been much discussed, either in the party or in the media, but if the audience’s reaction is anything to go by the amount of further progress made in the next budget will be watched closely by many Liberal Democrats.
Danny Alexander went on to say, “There is nothing progressive about leaving the paying of debt to the next generation … Our plan is credible. It is already supporting economic growth … Labour allowed political convenience to trump economic necessity once too often.”
On welfare, he said the underlying principle should be, “Work for those who can. Proper support for those who cannot,” before going on to add “We must ensure that every tax bill is paid in full”, deriding tax dodging as an unacceptable lifestyle choice that takes money away from those who need it more and is “morally indefensible”.
Hence the significant new announcement in the speech: £900m extra is to be invested in cracking down on tax avoidance and evasion. I expect that we will see a lot more of this pairing up of welfare and tax issues with rhetoric about how welfare cheaters are wrong, but so too are tax cheats.
Danny Alexander then moved on to praise those working in public services, promising to listen to their views and give them more autonomy even as the government seeks to save money.
The end result of the government’s economic policies? “The country will be stronger, fairer and more prosperous”, said Danny Alexander.
The standing ovation at the end was a little slow to start, partly as it was not immediately obvious that Danny had finished speaking but also because it was a good, competent speech rather than a barnstormer.