When the main hall is packed at a Spring Conference, you can be sure it isn’t because everyone wants to debate the third clause of the Federal Conference Committee’s report, or even (as we heard this morning) discuss the rights and wrongs of holding a conference that clashes with Mothers’ Day.
No, it’s because St. Vince of Twickenham is taking to the stage. The halo may have slipped slightly on occasion, most notably the hastily-revised Mansion Tax proposals made at Bournemouth last September, but for the party faithful it’s still Vince who can heal the sick and, if weather conditions are right, walk on water.
Vince’s message is that the Liberal Democrats were right. Right about the downturn, right about the banking crisis, and right for the future.
A decade ago, a group of Lib Dems, including Vince, fought the demutualisation of the Building Societies and told Gordon Brown to cut the excessive profits of the banks. But like the Old Testament prophets, the warnings went unheeded and we’ve all paid the price.
Gordon Brown, Vince tells us, seems more like Ashley Cole. Not (we fervently hope) sending pictures of his genitals to girlfriends on his mobile phone, but asking for a second chance despite having done everything to show he doesn’t deserve one.
Vince has no great love for the banking community. “Not all bankers were greedy and stupid, but plenty were”. Thousands of British companies are being throttled because they can’t get the funds they need, whilst banks, yet again, pay out enormous bonuses and rake in big profits on the back of their taxpayer-funded bailout.
His attitude is uncompromising. “Banks that are too big to fail are simply too big and have to be broken up”.
Any Government depends on the markets to finance the deficit, and the Lib Dems will be financially responsible. Unlike the Conservatives, Vince tells us, the Lib Dems won’t indulge in frightening the markets for political gain.
Vince criticises the Tories for flip-flopping over whether we should cut this year or at some unspecified time in the future.
“I’d love to give you a serious critique of the Tories’ budget plans but I’ve absolutely no idea what they are. ‘Trust us and we’ll tell you after the election’ isn’t good enough.”
There will be spending cuts, but not too soon. The timing and speed of cuts has to reflect the state of the economy – not strangle change.
This list of cuts doesn’t include any new items: serious public sector pay restraint for two years with no pay rises above £8 a week and no bonuses. Axe child tax credits for higher earners. Cut expensive defence contracts like Eurofighter and like-for-like Trident replacement. Cut back Regional Development Agencies, scrap regional government, stop spending money on consultants and end illiberal, costly Government databases like ID cards.
A noteworthy comment from Vince was that there’ll be no ring fencing – the Lib Dems look across all departments for cuts. That’s not to say all departments will see cuts; but Vince was clear that none will be out of bounds.
So far Vince and his team have identified annual saving of £15 billion, with the full details to be set out in the manifesto. The Lib Dems would set out priorities and debate them openly: it’s right and fair that the people affected by cuts should have their say, we were told.
Vince believes the public will accept austerity for a time, if the burdens are seen to be fair and fairly shared. But we can’t, and shouldn’t, expect the wider public to accept austerity if the Government kowtows to bankers and non-doms.
Finally, Vince restated the Lib Dem’s tax plans: to take millions out of the tax system altogether by making the first £10,000 income tax free, and increase tax for the very rich and the banks that have made so much money.
The end of Vince’s speech was a little understated. No rousing finale, but then he doesn’t need one: he could have spent the time making balloon animals and still received a standing ovation. He didn’t though.
This was Vince on form, and the gap between Cable and Osborne grows starker by the day.