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 the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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