Alexander struggles to charm as he signs up for more welfare cuts

The man "more right-wing" than George Osborne received a muted response from Lib Dem delegates.

After Vince Cable's deft performance yesterday, Danny Alexander's speech to the Liberal Democrat conference fell rather flat. "Fellow plebs," he began, offering an inferior version of the most memorable line from the Business Secretary's address.

Having been described by one of his party's activists as "more right-wing" than George Osborne, Alexander was on a mission to prove that "it is not impossible to be a Liberal Democrat in the Treasury". So he hailed the progress the coalition had made towards an income tax threshold of £10,000 (adding that the Lib Dems would seek to raise it to £12,500 after the next election), trumpeted the increase in capital gains tax, and, sounding like the world's least terrifying super hero, warned tax dodgers: "we are coming to get you and you will pay your fair share". All of this was politely and even enthusiastically received, but it couldn't compensate for the jarring notes elsewhere.

While he vowed to continue to push for some form of wealth tax, he also signalled that the Lib Dems would have to sign up to further welfare cuts in 2015-16. "At £220bn, welfare is one third of all public spending - and despite our painful reforms it is still rising. We will have to look at it," he said.

Elsewhere, he unwisely mocked Ed Miliband's theme of "predistribution", an idea of considerable appeal to Lib Dem activists. "Apparently it means spending money you don’t have, without knowing where that money is going to come from in the future," he inaccurately surmised. Predictably, it failed to raise so much as a smile from the conference floor.

Offering an even more robust endorsement of George Osborne's strategy than Cable, Alexander erroneously suggested that Britain's record low borrowing rates were the result of the coalition's deficit reduction programme. Yet, as he must surely know, they owe more to the Bank of England's quantitative easing programme (which has seen it buy up hundreds of billions of UK gilts) and our non-membership of the euro (the US, in spite of the loss of its AAA rating, has seen its interest rates fall for the same reason).

Alexander declared that this hard-won "credibility" meant the UK could now afford to guarantee a series of grand projets, offering the example of Crossrail. But with the country already mired in a double-dip recession and unemployment forecast to rise next year, delegates will ask why it took the coalition so long to adopt anything resembling a growth strategy.

One political point worth noting is how little Alexander did to reach out to Labour. He referred twice to "the mess" the party left and joked hopefully that Cable won't have received a "congratulatory text message from Ed Miliband" after his speech (ironically, it was Cable who texted Miliband after the Labour leader's speech last year). The abiding impression was that, in contrast to Cable, he is far more comfortable working with the Tories than Labour. It's one reason why the party faithful struggled to warm to him today.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander delivers his speech at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.