David Cameron: from foolhardy champion swimmer to panicked doggy-paddler

The prime minister's party conference speech had only regurgitated rhetoric, with no policy, ideas or budget to back it up.


Do you remember that funny 1980s film, Weekend at Bernie’s? Two losers trying to pretend that their boss hadn’t really died, so that they may continue to party at his expense? That, for me, was the inescapable image of the Conservative Party conference.

The corpse, in this case, is the government’s neoliberal economic policy, complete with comedy hat and sunglasses. The rigor mortis of contraction and unemployment is making it increasingly difficult for George Osborne to manipulate the arm into nonchalantly waving at a passing Christine Lagarde. She’s not buying it. The party is over.

I was fully prepared to write a piece attacking all the erroneous figures, the misquoted statistics, the circular arguments. But I won’t. Firstly, because it is futile; the depressing truth is that nobody with the intellect to be interested in such writing believes much of what this (or any) government says. Secondly, because, having heard Cameron’s evangelical call to arms, there are more fundamental things to address.

“I'm not here to defend privilege. I'm here to spread it”, says Cameron. The delegates cheer ecstatically. But what is the reality behind the one-liner? Privilege is by definition what one has above what others have. The very core of privilege is inequality. In short, the prime minister of a country in which less than 10 per cent of the population control more that 50 per cent of the wealth, wants more inequality. Of course he does, he is part of that 10 per cent.

Still, we mustn’t resort to the “politics of resentment”, we were told with metronomic regularity this week. We mustn’t think ill of those hard-working people who do well. The implication being that, if you’re not doing well, you’re just not working hard enough. Also, that all those who do well, have worked hard. Like Osborne and Cameron who inherited their wealth.

Cameron saluted “the doers” and “the risk-takers”. The Doers and Risk-takers in the City of London and Wall Street, those arsonists largely responsible for setting the world on fire, salute you back, David. And why shouldn’t they? They are seemingly untouchable by regulation, prosecution – and now, even resentment.

On the other hand, when it comes to resenting the poor, the unemployed, the unionised, the immigrant, the sick, the squatter, the public servant, the European, the young, the old, the intellectual, the Muslim, the demonstrator - resentment is not only allowed. It is encouraged.

In this current climate of unemployment and misery, it has never occurred to me when leaving home for a job, to be anything other than grateful that I have a job. I have never glanced at a neighbour’s drawn blinds and thought “you lucky sod, surviving on sixty quid a week”.

The reason 2.6 million unemployed cannot be shoe-horned into three hundred thousand vacancies is mathematics. Not a lack of aspiration.

That word - aspiration… Repeated again and again. “Conservatives are the party of aspiration.” They are here to help those who aspire. “The young people who dream of their first pay cheque, their first car, their first home – and are ready and willing to work hard to get those things.” More cheers from the hypnotised delegate-flock.

It doesn’t occur to David Cameron how utterly depressing it is for the leader of this country to define “aspiration” as the lust for money, cars and property.

It never occurs to him how hypocritical it is for this to come from someone who knew they would get a car as a present on their eighteenth birthday, always have a comfortable home to live in and a pay cheque guaranteed upon graduation because daddy could pull strings.

It does not occur to him how hilariously at odds this is with his rhetoric on the big society. How it exposes the idiocy of the expectation that once this fictional young person, bred to be selfish and materialistic, has accumulated enough pay cheques, enough cars, enough homes, they will go out and run a soup kitchen for those “less aspirational”.

It never even occurs to him that this mass psychosis, of judging success solely by reference to what each person can grab for themselves, is at the root of the social decay he bemoans; at the root of crime, poverty, environmental damage, the looting last summer, the financial crisis in 2008.

But most frighteningly, it does not appear to occur to him that the position of prime minister involves more than passionately delivered, hollow words.

Last year, he framed his speech with “Britannia didn’t rule the waves with her armbands on”. This year he says “it is time to sink or swim”. An elegant, if unwitting, indication of how his thinking has moved on; from foolhardy champion swimmer to panicked doggy-paddler.

The UK economy is fast becoming a small makeshift raft, cobbled together from antiquated dogma, U-turns and fiascos, adrift in a sea of global uncertainty. Selling off the planks to passing sharks is not a solution. When the water is ankle-deep, crew and passengers look to the captain for action, not regurgitated rhetoric, however deftly delivered.

All he can do is stand there and shout passionately “The Free Market will save us! Enterprise will save us! Aspiration will save us!” Abstract, deified, neoliberal concepts without a smidgeon of policy, detail or budget to back them up.

I recognised his speech for what it was: A drowning man’s gurgling prayer.


David Cameron. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Show Hide image

Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.