After Vince Cable’s deft performance yesterday, Danny Alexander’s speech to the Liberal Democrat conference fell rather flat. “Fellow plebs,” he began, offering an inferior version of the most memorable line from the Business Secretary’s address.
Having been described by one of his party’s activists as “more right-wing” than George Osborne, Alexander was on a mission to prove that “it is not impossible to be a Liberal Democrat in the Treasury”. So he hailed the progress the coalition had made towards an income tax threshold of £10,000 (adding that the Lib Dems would seek to raise it to £12,500 after the next election), trumpeted the increase in capital gains tax, and, sounding like the world’s least terrifying super hero, warned tax dodgers: “we are coming to get you and you will pay your fair share”. All of this was politely and even enthusiastically received, but it couldn’t compensate for the jarring notes elsewhere.
While he vowed to continue to push for some form of wealth tax, he also signalled that the Lib Dems would have to sign up to further welfare cuts in 2015-16. “At £220bn, welfare is one third of all public spending – and despite our painful reforms it is still rising. We will have to look at it,” he said.
Elsewhere, he unwisely mocked Ed Miliband’s theme of “predistribution”, an idea of considerable appeal to Lib Dem activists. “Apparently it means spending money you don’t have, without knowing where that money is going to come from in the future,” he inaccurately surmised. Predictably, it failed to raise so much as a smile from the conference floor.
Offering an even more robust endorsement of George Osborne’s strategy than Cable, Alexander erroneously suggested that Britain’s record low borrowing rates were the result of the coalition’s deficit reduction programme. Yet, as he must surely know, they owe more to the Bank of England’s quantitative easing programme (which has seen it buy up hundreds of billions of UK gilts) and our non-membership of the euro (the US, in spite of the loss of its AAA rating, has seen its interest rates fall for the same reason).
Alexander declared that this hard-won “credibility” meant the UK could now afford to guarantee a series of grand projets, offering the example of Crossrail. But with the country already mired in a double-dip recession and unemployment forecast to rise next year, delegates will ask why it took the coalition so long to adopt anything resembling a growth strategy.
One political point worth noting is how little Alexander did to reach out to Labour. He referred twice to “the mess” the party left and joked hopefully that Cable won’t have received a “congratulatory text message from Ed Miliband” after his speech (ironically, it was Cable who texted Miliband after the Labour leader’s speech last year). The abiding impression was that, in contrast to Cable, he is far more comfortable working with the Tories than Labour. It’s one reason why the party faithful struggled to warm to him today.