But it sounds like, by missing it, I didn’t miss much. There were no dramatic announcements, no new initiatives. Yes, there was talk of the need to “nag and push and guide” young people to either “earn or learn” – the Department of Work and Pensions reports over a million people between the ages of 16 and 24 are not in work, education or training. How to do that, though, is currently the subject of a government review.
We know the Tories want to do it by wielding the stick, ending the automatic entitlement to housing benefit for the under-25s. But we also know that’s on the list of policies vetoed by Nick Clegg, as he told us in his conference speech. So it’ll have to wait for a majority Tory government to happen.
Which means it won’t happen any time soon. Because if there’s one thing this week in Manchester has shown, yet again, it’s that the Tories still have little idea how to win over the voters they failed to persuade in 2010. Spooked first by the failure of austerity to generate growth, then by the rise of Ukip’s Little Englander protest vote, the Tories have retreated to their own 35% strategy — banging on about immigration, welfare and Europe — to safeguard their position. Unfortunately for them, though, that means losing not winning seats in 2015. There was little here to suggest the Tories have a clue how to reach out to new voters or to convert swing voters.
Ed Miliband’s well-received (if largely content-less) speech hovered over Mr Cameron’s. Gone was last year’s gloomily Stakhonovite pitch that Brits must work harder and harder to keep up in the so-called ‘global race’ (a silly idea the right-leaning Centre for Policy Studies shredded last year).
Instead the Tory leader promised a ‘land of opportunity’ under the Tories: a pretty meaningless slogan which sounded a long way off. If this was a retail offer, it was the equivalent of being told to keep saving your coupons until such time as you’re allowed to redeem them for… something. They’ll keep us posted.
Unlike Ed Miliband’s speech, though, the Lib Dems did get a mention:
“I don’t know whether you caught the Liberal Democrat conference a couple of weeks ago. No? I missed most of it too…. They were trying to take all the credit for these tax cuts, as though they had been twisting our arm to do it.”
Nice try, Mr Cameron. But, as I’ve written before:
It’s worth recalling what the Tory tax pledges were in 2010:
- reverse Labour’s proposed increase in National Insurance contributions (what the Tories termed the ‘jobs tax’);
- raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m;
- freeze council tax for two years;
- tax breaks for married couples;
- reduce corporation tax.
No mention at all of the personal allowance.
Still, the Tory leader’s snippy defensiveness gives us the opportunity to re-live this scene from the 2010 TV leaders’ debate once again:
Cameron 2010: "I would love to take everyone out of their first £10,000 of income tax, Nick…We cannot afford it" https://t.co/dFL5EXeSZI
— Lib Dem Press Office (@LibDemPress) May 1, 2013
Overall, Ed Miliband will have the greatest reason to look back with pleasure at this conference season. He’s once again turned crisis into if not quite triumph, at least something that looks like progress. Nick Clegg, too, will be pretty happy that he won all his crucial conference votes — and, more importantly, that Labour and the Tories are deserting the centre ground, ceding it to the Lib Dems.
For Mr Cameron, well on the plus-side his party is largely united again by the electoral threat posed by Labour and Ukip. That has bought him more time. But the reckoning’s coming. If the Tories lose or fail to win again, that is most probably that for the Tory leader. But ironically it’s if he somehow does win a majority that his problems will really start: because within two years there will have to be an in/out EU referendum. And what chances of he, or the Tory party, surviving that intact?
* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from May 2007 to Jan 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.