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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?

New Statesman
Cameron delivers his keynote speech in Manchester. Image: Getty

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.