Comment: Cameron speech was misjudged and false

It’s amazing that such a talented politician can so misjudge a major speech. The simple reason is: he’s picking the wrong victims.

By Ian Dunt

For some reason, conference speeches are the one bit of political theatre David Cameron just can’t sort out.

He’s convincing at the monthly press conferences he used to give as opposition leader, successful in the Commons and engaging on the stump – but this is the third conference speech in a row that has been drab and insubstantial.

Cameron vs Miliband

There were parallels, ironically, with Ed Miliband’s far superior speech, in that both men grasped for a core idea they could anchor various policies to. The difference is primarily historic. Ed Miliband delivered a speech which signalled a new chapter in Labour history, casting off relics of the past while accepting fundamental political compromises. With a few modifications, David Cameron’s speech could readily have been given last year and no-one would have noticed.

For something about the alternate levels of honesty in the speeches, take the section last week when Miliband addressed the unions. First he delivered an emotional defence of trade unionism as a civilising force which has been simply unheard of at a Labour leader’s speech for a generation. Then he followed it with a hard line on opposing irresponsible strikes.

Today, we were given none of that subtlety, although the intention was the same: to speak to the party and the country in a way that was responsible but also politically tenable. The core components of Cameron’s speech – the relationship between the ‘big society’ (I refuse to capitalise it) and the need to cut the deficit – in no way challenge the Tory party.

But despite not asking anything of his party, he still failed to inspire it. There was strong applause for sections attacking Labour, but whole passages on the ‘big society’ were met with silence. This was especially problematic given the electric atmosphere in the hall before he arrived. The reason is that Cameron refuses to feed them the red meat. He won’t challenge them, but he won’t satisfy them either. Their central issues – law and order, Europe – are left unaddressed. At one point it looked like Cameron was going to openly defend Ken Clarke’s liberal justice reforms. Instead he merely alluded to them, but without using his deft political skills to actually sell them.

We’re all in this together

The higher echelons of the party clearly decided this was the week for a narrative about how the middle class have to suffer too, so George Osborne can point to it on October 20th when the spending review reveals that, once again, it will be the poor who really get hit.

The party did this with a scrapping of child benefits for those earning over £44,000.
It was less-than-impressively handled, frankly. Cameron got nervous very quickly, and spent all of yesterday making confusing statements about a future married couples’ tax break. Osborne, to his credit, stayed firm, suggesting unfortunate things about the party leader’s ability to deal with even moderate levels of media pressure.

Regardless, this effort at proving that ‘we’re all in this together’ earns nothing from Cameron’s speech.

How can we possibly all be in this together when the poor are the always the subject of the attacks? Page after page of the speech concentrated on what is, to all intents and purposes, his modern update of the undeserving poor – this army of people milking benefits. Of course they exist. The incurably lazy will always exist. Of course we should do something about them. But surely it’s more sensible to concentrate on the banks, which got us into this mess, and the financial sector in general, which shows no signs of having changed its nature or recognised its responsibility.

How many undeserving welfare recipients does it take to reach that magic £1 trillion we spent saving the banks? Why is there no mention of their state subsidies? Why is it OK for them to take 0.5% interest rate loans from the Bank of England only to use it to buy three per cent ten-year Treasury bonds? Maybe if workless households could do that too they wouldn’t have to claim jobseekers allowance either.

We’re not all in this together. The banks are merrily throwing around bonuses and not lending. They are not having their benefits cut. Cameron had two lines to say about this, which are worth quoting in their entirety: “There’s another way we are getting behind business – by sorting out the banks. Taxpayers bailed you out. Now it’s time for you to repay the favour and start lending to Britain’s small businesses.”

And that’s it. It’s basically exactly the same as what Alistair Darling has been telling Labour conferences since 2007. George Osborne has been saying the same thing. But there’s no policy there. No detail. Nothing. They’re literally just words. These sentences are thrown to us, an angry public, like crumbs. We’re meant to feel appeased. Welfare recipients, however, are the subject of epic passages, detailing how unfair their behaviour is.

Labour was given the same treatment. It was relentlessly attacked for letting the nation’s finances get out of control. That is accurate, although to be truly honest Cameron could probably have mentioned, while attacking Labour for not introducing enough regulation, that the Tories did not demand it and indeed actively opposed it.
But it’s the focus that makes the speech so staggeringly uneven. How can anyone justify spending so much time attacking Labour for lack of regulation when barely any mention is made of the financial sector’s role in our current predicament?

Hall or country

All of this would make perfect sense if Cameron was going for the people in the hall. But it seems to me that Cameron’s failure to hit the right note at these events comes because he doesn’t identify the fine line between addressing the hall and addressing the country. He tries to please both but satisfies neither.

The hall is offered none of its customary sacrifices, such as crime and Europe, not to mention the fact it must swallow Lib Dem a partnership, an end to the middle class benefits and a leader who couldn’t secure a majority.

Meanwhile, the country is served a Tory narrative it simply doesn’t believe. It knows the banks and financial sector is to blame and that Gordon Brown, for all his many, many faults, was not singlehandedly responsible for an international financial collapse.

It also knows that the rich won’t suffer as much as the poor, that the public sector will be hit infinitely harder than the privately employed middle classes and that the bankers and the super-rich will stand above them all: untouched.

It’s a shame it comes to this. Cameron is a man of principle, who took big, brave risks after the election where lesser men would have buckled, and who has managed to change his party, and therefore British politics, for the better. But on this one issue, on the central subject of his speech and his government, he is simply wrong. No-one is going to believe that we’re all in this together. No-one is going to believe that a glamorised series of voluntary initiatives should replace the welfare state.

You can’t sell an implausible message about taking old ladies for a walk when the staggering injustice of Britain in 2010 is staring everyone in the face.

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