David Cameron has Miliband on his mind and nothing new to say

Cameron’s speech failed to address the underlying challenge that the opposition leader posed: how and when should government intervene in private markets that are failing to deliver for voters?

Before the Tory conference, I was told by someone in Downing Street that the core strategic message of the week would be much the same as last year. The Conservatives are clearing up Labour’s mess, repairing Britain’s economy to equip the nation for competition in the global race, serving the aspirations of all, etc. I notice that the same message has been briefed ahead of Cameron’s speech closing the conference today. It was meant to be a restatement of the core Tory mission, not a drastic departure from the traditional script. Heavy on heart-warming metaphors, light on ideas. The easy sequel. Global Race II: Land of Opportunity.

Tory strategists know they need a policy response to Labour’s charge that the government is presiding over a cost-of-living crisis. As I wrote last week, the plan has always been to address that in announcements on a grid running up to the autumn statement later this year. (George Osborne’s pledge to prolong the freeze on fuel duty was just a taster.) Yet plainly Downing Street has been rattled by Miliband’s offer to cap energy bills – or rather, by the way it threatened to trap the Tories into batting for utility companies instead of promising to protect consumers.

As a result Cameron’s speech today included a number of references to Miliband – including a dreadful joke about keeping the lights on – without really addressing the underlying challenge that the opposition leader posed: how and when should government intervene in private markets that are failing in a way that weighs heavily on domestic finances of voters? The Prime Minister ended up confirming that Miliband was on his mind without apparently having anything new to say.

Most of the speech was a rehearsal of well-established Conservative arguments, restored with some new metaphors. The strongest passage was the defence of welfare reform as a moral mission to restore self-reliance and self-confidence to people who have been written off as unable or unwilling to work. Labour will hate that, of course, and point to the gross iniquities of coalition benefit cuts and the incompetent delivery of Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit. But it remains the case that the Tories have something like a political monopoly on determination to “fix” the benefits system and Ed Miliband still hasn’t done enough to dispel the impression that his party just wishes the issue would go away. It won't. The one new policy nugget in Cameron's speech was a promise that a majority Tory government would further limit access to benefits for under-25s.

The core proposition in the speech – insofar as there was one – appears to be that Labour offers ill-judged, desperate, debt-ramping quick fixes drawn from a policy well that was poisoned in the 1970s, while Tories carefully and maturely lay the foundations for long-term growth and prosperity from which all shall benefit, regardless of race, colour or creed. Britain is brilliant. British businesses are brilliant. Tories understand that. The left doesn’t, which is why they hate oak trees, or something like that.

A central part of the strategy appears to be trading on the public's remarkable tolerance of austerity and the perception that it is working as an approach to restoring economic growth. Hence the pledge to reach a surplus by 2020. Labour may have queasily promised to exert fiscal discipline of its own in the next parliament – even offering to have manifesto plans vetted by the Office for Budget Responsibility – but so far Ed Balls shows no intention of chasing George Osborne any further down that road. The Conservatives will mobilise all the figurative devices they used in 2010 to police the fiscal dividing line. The debt crisis isn’t over; the spectre of Greek tragedy still looms, the credit card must never be maxed out again; Labour’s fingers itch to turn the taps on. And so on.

There is surely some political mileage in that attack. But what was missing from Cameron’s message was a distinct or really credible account of how fiscal discipline turns into good times for the many. The tone and ambition were studiously optimistic, the offer itself was nebulous. The rationale appears to be that sorting out Labour’s mess is the pre-requisite for growth and investment, which creates jobs, which can in turn be filled by people who are emancipated from welfare dependency or educated in Michael Gove’s magnificent new schools. This is really an elaborate retelling of orthodox Conservative ideology: government will take care of the budget fundamentals, offer essential services, keep spending to a minimum and the market will take care of the rest. I'm confident many people in the conference hall agree with that proposition. I’m less sure it contains the basis of a campaign that will get the Tories to a majority in parliament at the next general election.

Cameron delivers his keynote speech in Manchester. Image: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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What is the New Hampshire primary, and why does it matter?

Although the contest has proved less influential in recent years, the New Hampshire primary is still a crucial event.

While the Iowa caucuses are the first electoral event in the US’s presidential process, the New Hampshire primary is the candidates' most important early test before the action explodes across the rest of the country.

The stakes are high. If the nominations aren’t decided soon, the campaigns will be damned to a marathon of costly state primaries and caucuses; New Hampshire is their first best chance to avoid that fate. But it didn’t always work this way.

Primaries only became the key element of the nomination process relatively recently. Until the postwar era, presidential candidates were chosen at the national conventions in the summer: in the run-up to the 1960 election, future president John F Kennedy famously entered only one primary (West Virginia’s) to prove that a Roman Catholic could win a Protestant state.

It was only after the turmoil of the 1968 nomination, widely perceived as an establishment fix, that the McGovern-Fraser Commission changed the Democratic party’s rules to end the power of the “smoke-filled room” over the nominating process, prompting many states to adopt meaningful primaries for both parties' nominations.

First in the nation

Unlike caucuses, which generally are used in smaller states that would rather not pay for full-scale ballots, primaries are secret-ballot elections that allow voters to choose who will be their preferred nominee. But not all primaries are the same.

The parties sometimes hold their votes on the same day, as they do in New Hampshire, or on different ones. A primary may be open (allowing any voter to register a preference) or closed (allowing only pre-registered party supporters to vote). New Hampshire has a mixed system which allows voters to register in a primary on the day before voting without declaring a party affiliation.

That means that while all voters registered with a party must vote in that party’s ballot, the New Hampshire result often hinges on these unaffiliated voters. Because they can vote in whichever ballot they like and can register so close to primary day, the state is notoriously difficult to poll.

New Hampshire has cemented its first-in-the-nation status by passing a law that requires its lawmakers to move the state’s primary to pre-empt any other state’s, no matter how early. That means it’s traditionally been not just an important indicator of how candidates are faring, but a way of winnowing the field and generating or killing funding. Candidates who perform poorly generally find their access to money suddenly dries up.

The arguments against New Hampshire’s outsize role are many. Like Iowa, it’s hardly representative of the US as a whole, being a small state with an overwhelmingly white population. And while (unlike Iowa) it has no powerful evangelical Christian element, it retains a very distinctive tradition of small-town New England politics that demand a particular kind of face-to-face, low-to-the-ground campaigning.

But this time around, other factors have cut into New Hampshire’s significance.

On the Republican side, the primary’s winnowing role was in large part pre-empted when the TV networks holding debates allowed only the higher-polling candidates on stage, effectively creating a two-tier system that tarred lower-polling candidates as also-rans long before voting began. Meanwhile, the financial calculations have been transformed by campaign finance reforms that allow for almost unlimited outside fundraising – allowing candidates to build up the reserves they need to withstand a humiliating defeat.

Nonetheless, a truly surprising New Hampshire result could still change everything.

Shuffling the deck

New Hampshire hasn’t always chosen the winner in either the nomination contests or the general election. But it has provided more than its share of political upsets and key turning points, from persuading Lyndon Johnson not to stand again in 1968 to resurrecting the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and John McCain in 2008.

The incremental campaigns for the nominations are all about the perception of momentum, and a notional front-runner can be dislodged or destabilised by a poor performance early on. That’s especially true in this year’s cycle, in which both major parties are grappling with huge surges of support for outsider, anti-establishment candidates.

Mainstream Republicans have spent months trying to end Donald Trump’s noisy domination of their crowded field. Trump was indeed defeated in Iowa, but not by a moderating force: instead, it was radical conservative Ted Cruz who overturned him.

Cruz is loathed by the party establishment, and he stands little chance of appealing to mainstream voters. Marco Rubio’s strong showing in Iowa briefly made him something of a standard-bearer for the party’s moderates, but a disastrous turn at the last debate before New Hampshire has thrown the future of his candidacy into doubt.

The primary will also reveal who, if any, of the more moderate Republican candidates – among them Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie – will survive. While Bush has a massive funding advantage (albeit with precious little to show for it), Kasich and Christie both need a strong showing in New Hampshire to reinvigorate their financial reserves.

On the Democratic side, the key question is whether Bernie Sanders can make good on the surprising energy of his populist, grassroots challenge to Hillary Clinton. He is currently the heavy favourite in New Hampshire: even if Clinton somehow pulls off a miracle win there as she did in 2008, the closeness of the race is already stimulating both campaigns' national organisation and spending. And with what could be a long race between them heating up, the two’s growing mutual acrimony may yet start to undermine the Democrats' national appeal.

Gillian Peele Associate Professor in Politics and Tutorial Fellow at the University of Oxford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.