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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The vitriol aimed at Hillary Clinton shows the fragility of women's half-won freedom

The more I understand about the way the world treats women, the more I feel the terror of it coming for me.

I’m worried about my age. I’m 36. There’s a line between my eyebrows that’s been making itself known for about the last six years. Every time I see a picture of myself, I automatically seek out the crease. One nick of Botox could probably get rid of it. Has my skin lost its smoothness and glow?

My bathroom shelf has gone from “busy” to “cluttered” lately with things designed to plump, purify and resurface. It’s all very pleasant, but there’s something desperate I know at the bottom of it: I don’t want to look my age.

You might think that being a feminist would help when it comes to doing battle with the beauty myth, but I don’t know if it has. The more I understand about the way the world treats women – and especially older women – the more I feel the terror of it coming for me. Look at the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s book. Too soon. Can’t she go quietly. Why won’t she own her mistakes.

Well Bernie Sanders put a book out the week after the presidential election – an election Clinton has said Sanders did not fully back her in –  and no one said “too soon” about that. (Side note: when it comes to not owning mistakes, Sanders’s Our Revolution deserves a category all to itself, being as how the entire thing was written under the erroneous impression that Clinton, not Trump, would be president.) Al Gore parlayed his loss into a ceaseless tour of activism with An Inconvenient Truth, and everyone seems fine with that. John McCain – Christ, everyone loves John McCain now.

But Hillary? Something about Hillary just makes people want to tell her to STFU. As Mrs Merton might have asked: “What is it that repulses you so much about the first female candidate for US president?” Too emotional, too robotic, too radical, too conservative, too feminist, too patriarchal – Hillary has been called all these things, and all it really means is she’s too female.

How many women can dance on the head of pin? None, that’s the point: give them a millimetre of space to stand in and shake your head sadly as one by one they fall off. Oh dear. Not this woman. Maybe the next one.

It’s in that last bit that that confidence racket being worked on women really tells: maybe the next one. And maybe the next one could be you! If you do everything right, condemn all the mistakes of the women before you (and condemn the women themselves too), then maybe you’ll be the one standing tippy-toe on the miniscule territory that women are permitted. I’m angry with the men who engage in Clinton-bashing. With the women, it’s something else. Sadness. Pity, maybe. You think they’ll let it be you. You think you’ve found the Right Kind of Feminism. But you haven’t and you never will, because it doesn’t exist.

Still, who wouldn’t want to be the Right Kind of Feminist when there are so many ready lessons on what happens to the Wrong Kind of Feminist. The wrong kind of feminist, now, is the kind of feminist who thinks men have no right to lease women by the fuck (the “sex worker exclusionary radical feminist”, or SWERF) or the kind of feminist who thinks gender is a repressive social construct (rechristened the “trans exclusionary radical feminist”, or TERF).

Hillary Clinton, who has said that prostitution is “demeaning to women” – because it absolutely is demeaning to treat sexual access to women as a tradeable commodity – got attacked from the left as a SWERF. Her pre-election promises suggest that she would probably have continued the Obama administration’s sloppy reinterpretation of sex discrimination protections as gender identity protections, so not a TERF. Even so, one of the charges against her from those who considered her not radical enough was that she was a “rich, white, cis lady.” Linger over that. Savour its absurdity. Because what it means is: I won’t be excited about a woman presidential candidate who was born female.

This year was the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and of the Abortion Act. One of these was met with seasons of celebratory programming; one, barely mentioned at all. (I took part in a radio documentary about “men’s emotional experiences of abortion”, where I made the apparently radical point that abortion is actually something that principally affects women.) No surprise that the landmark benefiting women was the one that got ignored. Because women don’t get to have history.

That urge to shuffle women off the stage – troublesome women, complicated women, brilliant women – means that female achievements are wiped of all significance as soon as they’re made. The second wave was “problematic”, so better not to expose yourself to Dworkin, Raymond, Lorde, Millett, the Combahee River Collective, Firestone or de Beauvoir (except for that one line that everyone misquotes as if it means that sex is of no significance). Call them SWERFs and TERFs and leave the books unread. Hillary Clinton “wasn’t perfect”, so don’t listen to anything she has to say based on her vast and unique experience of government and politics: just deride, deride, deride.

Maybe, if you’re a woman, you’ll be able to deride her hard enough to show you deserve what she didn’t. But you’ll still have feminine obsolescence yawning in your future. Even if you can’t admit it – because, as Katrine Marçal has pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, our entire economy is predicated on discounting women’s work – you’ll need the politics of women who analysed and understood their situation as women. You’ll still be a woman, like the women who came before us, to whom we owe the impossible debt of our half-won freedom.

In the summer of 2016, a radio interviewer asked me whether women should be grateful to Clinton. At the time, I said no: we should be respectful, but what I wanted was a future where women could take their place in the world for granted. What nonsense. We should be laying down armfuls of flowers for our foremothers every day.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.