David Cameron delivers his speech at the Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron's best performance yet gives the Tories the hope they need

A policy rich and politically artful speech invited voters to take another look at the man they could soon evict. 

If conference speeches decided elections, the Tories would now be on course for a landslide majority. With his party trailing to Labour in the polls, and shedding MPs to Ukip, David Cameron rose to the occasion and delivered his best performance since his election as leader. His address was fluent, passionate, inspiring and ruthless. The contrast with Ed Miliband's colourless performance last week will have had Labour MPs writhing with pain. 

After the policy-light speeches of previous years, the PM shifted gears and unleashed pledge after pledge. Having argued all week that the best way to reward workers and to raise living standards was to cut taxes, he was true to his word, vowing to raise the personal allowance from £10,000 to £12,500, and to increase the 40p rate threshold from £41,900 to £50,000. Whether the Tories' commitment to cut taxes, avoid tax rises and eradicate the deficit in a single parliament will pass the IFS test is doubtful. But the promises, the latter in particular, adrenalised the hall.

They were also politically astute. By promising a £12,500 threshold in advance, Cameron prevents the Lib Dems from claiming the credit in a future coalition, and frames the Tories as the party of the low-paid. Delivering his speech on the day the minimum wage rose to £6.50, and vowing to raise it to £7, he declared: "If you work 30 hours a week on minimum wage, you will pay no income tax at all. Nothing. Zero. Zilch." For a party that in recent history opposed the existence of a minimum wage at all, it has been quite a journey.

The 40p tax pledge gives Cameron vital cover against Ukip, and Labour will find it hard to criticise the move (even if only the top 15 per cent of earners benefit). By making both measures conditional on a faster pace of spending cuts than planned by Miliband and Balls, he has sharpened the dividing line with Labour on the deficit. But the danger for the Tories is that after the longest fall in living standards since the 1870s, these promises will feel like so many crumbs from the table. (Note, however, the political logic: by cutting taxes and slashing benefits, Cameron is seeking to roll back Labour's "client state".)

This being a Conservative conference, there were, of course, large servings of red meat for the Tory faithful: the scrapping of the Human Rights Act, the reduction of the benefit cap to £23,000, the maintenance of the lowest corporation tax rate in the G20, English votes for English laws, and an ambitious (or deluded) promise of fundamental reform to the free movement of EU migrants.

But this was also a big tent speech that showcased how the Tories have changed under Cameron. Alongside tax cuts for the low paid and a rise in the minimum wage, he pledged to build 100,00 homes for first-time buyers (with buy-to-let landlords and wealthy foreigners locked out), to fund three million apprenticeships, to deliver "full employment", and to ban exclusive zero-hour contracts. Of the latter, in a line that could have been spoken by Miliband, he declared: "When companies employ staff on zero hours contracts and then stop them from getting work elsewhere, that's not a free market – it is a fixed market." Compared to the Labour leader's narrowly tribal speech last week, this was artful pluralism. 

The high point came when Cameron turned to the NHS, the issue he once defined as his political priority, but of which he has had little to say in recent times. In a virtuoso display of raw emotion and cold anger, he savaged Labour for "frightening" those who relied on the health service and declared: "For me, this is personal."

"I am someone who has relied on the NHS – whose family knows more than most how important it is, who knows what it’s like to go to hospital night after night with a child in your arms, knowing that when you get there, you have people who will care for that child and love that child like their own. How dare they suggest I would ever put that at risk for other people’s children? How dare they frighten those who are relying on the NHS right now? It might be the only thing that gets a cheer at their party conference but it is frankly pathetic." 

It was a powerful and personal tribute to our "national religion". But for those struggling to get a GP appointment, or stranded in an A&E waiting room, his words will have rung hollow. The Tories may regard Labour's attacks as "scaremongering", but the polls show that the voters do not.

The gap between rhetoric and reality exemplified the wider shortcomings of the speech. Cameron's theme - a Britain that everyone is proud to call home - was an admirable one. But from the Prime Minister who imposed the bedroom tax, scrapped the 50p rate, closed Sure Start centres and introduced "Go Home" vans, it was rich in chutzpah.

This was a speech that pleaded with voters to take another look at the man they could evict from Downing Street in seven months' time. The danger for Cameron, who spoke as a big tent PM, but has too often governed as a small tent one, is that many stopped listening long ago. But for now, in a cold climate, his speech has fired the Tories with that most essential of political qualities: hope. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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