Cameron's speech will have pleased the Tories - but few others

The Prime Minister spoke as if he inhabited an alternate reality.

David Cameron's speech was the most defensive he has delivered since becoming Conservative leader. In an address devoid of policy announcements, he confronted head on the strongest arguments against his government. To the charge that its obsession with austerity had tipped Britain back into recession, he replied: "our deficit reduction plan is not an alternative to a growth plan: it’s the very foundation of our growth plan." To the charge that the Tories were, once again, the party of the rich, he insisted that the abolition of the 50p tax rate would help, not hurt, the poorest. "When people earn money, it’s their money.  Not the government’s money: their money," he declared with the conviction of a true Thatcherite.

The hall lapped it up, but Cameron's speech will have fallen flat in most of the country. The Prime Minister frequently spoke as if he inhabited an alternate reality in which the country wasn't in recession, a million young people weren't unemployed, and living standards weren't falling at the fastest rate since 1920s. Warning that it was "sink or swim" time for Britain, Cameron presented himself as a man confronting hard truths. But he avoided the truth that, without a change of course, the UK faces years of anaemic growth. We were reminded again that the deficit had been reduced by a quarter and that a million new private sector jobs had been created (although 196,000 of these were simply reclassified from the public sector). But the government's failure to deliver growth, indeed, its success in delivering recession, means that borrowing has increased by 22% this year, while, after falling in recent months, unemployment is forecast to rise in 2013.

Continuing his casual relationship with reality, the Prime Minister spoke as the leader of an imaginary Conservative government, not a coalition. The only mention the Liberal Democrats received was when he reminded the hall that they had promised to cut NHS spending at the last election. But his speech did little to advance the quest for a Tory majority. If he is to succeed where he failed in 2010, Cameron needs to persuade an increasingly sceptical electorate that he has a plan for growth and that he can govern for the many, not just the few. He did neither today. 

David Cameron delivers his speech at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images/

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.