Why David Cameron might be even more conservative than anyone thought

When making a speech, it pays to be more like the referee than the flashy star player.

The importance of party conference speeches – such as the one David Cameron delivered from Manchester on Wednesday 2 October – is vastly overrated. They are built up for weeks but forgotten in minutes. Perhaps the wisest speeches should be designed that way. There are dangers in a speech that is rapturously received. It can inflate expectations against which the leader is then harshly judged. A conference speech is like a low, electrified hurdle: as long as you don’t crash headlong into the voltage, it doesn’t much matter how high you leap. It is sometimes better to jump the obstacle with restrained economy and a lack of fuss, implying that there are more important things to be getting on with. A muted success, paradoxically, can leave a leader better positioned than a barnstorming triumph.

I learned this lesson the hard way. When I was captain of Middlesex, the club hierarchy made use of how I didn’t mind giving speeches to large audiences. They wheeled me out at forums and AGMs, encouraging me to “gee up the members” and “give everyone a lift”.

One season, as often happens in sport, the (successful) AGM was followed by a moderate run of early-season results. I was surprised to find my job instantly under threat. A senior club official explained why: “You were so confident and optimistic at the AGM that everyone left thinking we were going to have a spectacular season. Then it didn’t happen straight away.” A good speech had weakened my long-term position.

The point is that the AGM was not the real cricket season, just as the party conference is not real government. The AGM was just something that I had to negotiate and survive before moving on to my real job, which was to win cricket matches. If I’d been shrewder, I would have known that unflashy competence is sometimes the best you can hope for. It demands an unusual kind of bravery for a politician to behave like that. They are constantly pressured to articulate a grand vision. “The blandness of our pygmy politicians,” a recent feature in the Sunday Times complained, “reflects . . . an age devoid of big ideas.” An accompanying illustration portrayed David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg cowering in the shadow of Churchill, Thatcher and Blair, whose faces were carved into a British version of Mount Rushmore.

The cult of heroic personality fits neatly with the demands of the modern news cycle. The media nurture the idea of politicians as football managers: executive overlords with a constant and easily defined purpose, governed by stopwatch timekeeping and answerable to an expectant crowd. Will he produce a good speech/performance at the conference/cup final? How many more defeats can he survive? It is conveniently dramatic to imagine politics as a never-ending football season, punctuated by a series of contests that can be clearly categorised in terms of victory or defeat.

Yet the image of dazzling individual performances on big-match occasions doesn’t accurately describe politics – let alone government. Of all Cameron’s speeches, the idea that has stayed with me most clearly is the one that I like the least: last year’s conference refrain about “the global race”. Many pundits loved it for its catchy simplicity, its sense of a nation metaphorically called to arms. I thought it sounded like a soundbite cooked up during a conversation between a focus group pollster and a postgraduate studying for a Master’s in international relations.

In his essay “On Being Conservative”, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott explicitly warned conservative politicians against presenting an overarching, simplistic solution to every problem. The adolescent attraction of heroic leadership, Oakeshott argued, was intrinsically unconservative.

Oakeshott described what he called “the conservative disposition” as the ability to grasp “the inventiveness, the changefulness, the absence of any large design”. Oakeshott’s ideal conservative politician was suspicious of the “jump to glory style of politics in which governing is understood as a perpetual takeover bid for the purchase of the resources of human energy in order to concentrate them in a single direction”.

Far from hoping that the conservative politician would aspire to be a flashy star player, Oakeshott wanted him to have more in common with the referee – “strong, alert, resolute, economical and neither capricious nor overactive”, and careful to avoid “always blowing his whistle”.

Instead of setting the agenda, he holds the right balance; in place of vision, he seeks informal compromise; far from using logical arguments to pursue utopia, he has a nonrational grasp of his particular era and its demands. These are the features of an Oakeshottian conservative. “What others plausibly identify as timidity, he recognises in himself as rational prudence . . . He is disposed to indicate assent or dissent, not in absolute, but in graduated terms.”

But this version of conservative politics clearly does not easily lend itself to a rousing speech at a party conference. After all, when did a referee ever make a great story, unless, that is, he’d made a huge blunder?

We are conditioned to think that political leaders must approach conference as an opportunity to articulate a catchy idea. I’m not so sure. Ed Miliband certainly captured the news cycle with his promise to freeze energy bills but it remains to be seen whether he will end up grateful that the idea found traction. There is an art in avoiding hostages to fortune and much to be said for getting through the conference season without resorting to picking a “big idea” out of thin air.

David Cameron is often criticised from the right flank of his party for not being conservative enough. Ironically, he may be more conservative than even his detractors would think.

David Cameron addresses delegates at the annual Conservative Party Conference. Image: Getty

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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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.