David Cameron’s speech: meh, bah and hmm.

David Cameron - head in handsI missed David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative party conference today. Or, rather, I didn’t see or hear it, which isn’t quite the same thing as missing it.

Meh

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.

Bah

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:

  1. reverse Labour’s proposed increase in National Insurance contributions (what the Tories termed the ‘jobs tax’);
  2. raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m;
  3. freeze council tax for two years;
  4. tax breaks for married couples;
  5. 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:

Hmm

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 Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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15 Comments

  • It is not just Housing Benefit he wants to take away but JSA as well. Labour can now mobilise the young to vote for them. LIbDems will have difficulty after the Tuition Fee Pledge.

  • So David Cameron would like to be remembered as the man who turned the Nasty Party into the Nagging Party?

  • Maggie Smith 2nd Oct '13 - 8:31pm

    @David-1

    Don’t worry it’s still the nasty party. They couldn’t pull off the deception indefinitely.

  • Housing benefit? JSA? Don’t you realise that benefits will be universal by then (with our backing)?

  • It was a tired speech with a little idea at the end. Not a new idea, because it’s been around for a while and we’ve supposedly stymied it for this parliament.

    I know the details in all the press releases will make it seem slightly less threatening, but my first thought was… we’ve just told them they’re doing Maths GCSE until they’re 18 and now we’re telling them they have another seven years doing something called learning.

    The one thing he didn’t bother to define was who “they” are. I don’t think he knows. I don’t think he cares.

    God, coalition is a bum deal.

  • A sensible article except for the bit about “Labour and the Tories are deserting the centre ground”. Even Peter Oborne concedes in the Telegraph today that the claims about ‘Red Ed’ taking Labour back to the 70s are ludicrously exaggerated. Moreover the measures announced by Labour are highly popular according to polling, especially the energy price freeze. If the ‘centre ground’ is where most of the public stand, then Labour are squarely on it,

  • What John says

    “Labour and the Tories are deserting the centre ground”

    The ‘centre ground’ in that statement isn’t referring to a relative position between the two parties but an absolute position on the political spectrum. Stopping benefits for everyone under 25 isn’t right-wing, it’s very right-wing and well beyond anything that Thatcher would countenance (It’s also electoral suicide – any slim chance the Tories had of snatching the election disappeared yesterday). Talking of capping consumer energy prices as part of a government intervention in a market isn’t particularly left-wing – it’s what you would expect from a centrist that believes in a mixed economy with state intervention. It’s not as if Miliband proposed wholesale nationalisation. I’d agree that the Lib Dems are positioned between the current philosophies of Labour and the Tories, but that makes you centre-right, not centrist.

  • The question now is, would the Liberal Democrats be prepared to go into coalition with a party that intends to abolish state support for unemployed adults between the ages of 18-25?

  • For a party that wanted to reduce Tony Blair’s numbers going into higher education, Cameron’s Tories seem to have trodden new ground with the idea that under 25s without a job should just carry on “learning”. Where do the people doing the education and training going to come from, with FE massively underfunded as it is? With jobs with real skill content in decline, how are we ever going to find worthwhile work for them even if we manage to upskill them to any great extent? What effect do we think this will have on people’s morale over the long term? No, this is a PR stunt, which, of course, Cameron as a PR man, is ideally placed to put over. I say, put Danny Alexander on the case, that will boost the PR input!

  • I for one am very happy with this announcement by Cameron. It pushes the Tories further to the right and gives us plenty of ground in the middle to oppose it while leaving Miliband to make unachievable, impractical commitments that come unstuck in the real world and expose how flaky Labour are.

    Having stopped under-25 benefit cuts happening while in government, the Lib Dems not Labour are the ones who have the credibility to say they will stop it happening again in future.

  • RC

    Having stopped under-25 benefit cuts happening while in government, the Lib Dems not Labour are the ones who have the credibility to say they will stop it happening again in future.

    Wishful thinking. Labour have no intention of stopping benefits for under 25s and they are certain to have more MPs at the next election than the Liberal Democrats.

    If you are motivated to vote based on your position on this policy it is a simple Labour vs Tory choice, the Lib Dems would only work with one or the other making a vote for them on this issue pointless, and who is to say they could stop the policy in coalition with the Conservatives? It may be like tuition fees.

    Of course Nick could just come out and say that if the Lib Dems are to be part of any future Coalition then they will insist this measure cannot pass.

    That would resolve any uncertainties.

  • formervoter 3rd Oct '13 - 12:39pm

    @RC

    “Having stopped under-25 benefit cuts happening while in government, the Lib Dems not Labour are the ones who have the credibility to say they will stop it happening again in future.”

    Clegg has just said he supports the removal of all benefits from under-25s. So you can’t really put any clear water between yourselves and the Tories on this thoroughly nasty policy.

  • RC, further to last comment. Clegg seems to be generally supportive of curbing benefits for 18-25 year olds.
    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/oct/03/nick-clegg-lib-dems-workfare

  • I was feeling good about the Lib Dems not liking what Tories are doing until I read this in the Guardian:
    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/oct/03/nick-clegg-lib-dems-workfare
    Reading the Comments section tells us everything we don’t wish to read.

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