He may not move the voters, but Ed Miliband has certainly rattled David Cameron’s cage. The PM name checked Labour no fewer than 25 times in his address to the Tory conference yesterday in Manchester. He mentioned Ukip not once and only referred to the Liberal Democrats as an albatross around the Tory neck. So, why has Ed got under Tory skins?
Well, obviously Milband’s taking on the energy companies has annoyed the Tories because it is rather popular, as was a fair amount of Labour’s new “red” agenda. Hitting property developers and energy monopolies and shifting taxation from small businesses to big ones is hardly striking at the roots of capitalism. This is the kind of policy agenda that some Conservatives used to rather favour – supporting the little man, the small business against powerful vested interests.
One Nation conservatism of the type Harold MacMillan largely invented and Michael Heseltine still advocates today was all about raising the living standards of the many and curbing the privileges of the few. It was about building houses, promoting welfare and extending economic activity to the ‘regions’. It wasn’t about rejecting Europe, victimising the unemployed and pandering to the prejudices of voters in the South East of England.
You only needed to look at the huge blue banners draped around the conference centre in Manchester to get the message: “Immigration Down. Crime Down. Welfare Down. Taxes Down”. Mrs Thatcher would have been proud to discover that her legacy was so secure in the age of “liberal” Conservatism. Behind the emolient face of David Cameron, the Conservatives have defaulted to their true blue roots. This is a party tacking rapidly to the right.
David Cameron, we are told, is now planning to cut housing and possibly other benefits from unemployed people under the age of 25. This is a draconian extension of the welfare cap that has proved so successful for the Conservatives. He has committed his party to an in/out referendum on membership of Europe, a “go home” policy on immigration and a form of hair shirt fiscal conservatism by promising extending public sector cuts to 2020 in order to replace the deficit with a budget surplus. If he is serious, this would involve truly heroic spending reductions, since the Coalition has already failed in its original 2010 pledge to eliminate the deficit by 2015.
One thing we can be sure of: there won’t be another Liberal-Tory coalition after the next general election on this showing. This was the week that Cameron promised to liberate his party from the Liberal Democrats by unveiling a programme that could never be adopted even by Nick Clegg. The useful idiots, as many Tories regard the Libdems, have served their purpose and can be disposed of, apparently.
Mind you, the Liberal Democrats left a poison pill at the heart of the coalition by successfully blocking boundary reform for the 2015 general election. The existing political map broadly favours Labour, and Ed Miliband only needs a little over 36% of the vote to get a parliamentary majority, while David Cameron needs to secure over 40%. This looks like very very big ask for a party that that has little representation in Scotland, the north of England or Wales.
And this was hardly a speech that is likely to appeal to voters north of the border. It felt at times like the speech of the leader of a different country – Londonia perhaps. It was all about free schools, HS2, immigration controls, NHS reforms – the kind of issues that appeal to the home counties but are largely irrelevant in Scotland. The PM made the obligatory appeal to Scots not to leave the UK, but you got the impression that it would be no big thing if they did. It would certainly make it easier for the Tories to win elections without all those Scottish Labour MPs.
But that is for the future, and right now, Cameron is facing an election in 18 months time 10% down in the opinion polls and with a dangerously narrow electoral base. Does the PM know something that we don’t? What is the secret element in the Tory programme that will allow them to dispense with the Liberal Democrats and win an outright majority at the next general election?
Well, clearly Red Ed is part of it. ‘Old Labour, New Danger’, as the slogan might put it of Ed Miliband, paraphasing the 1997 slogan against Tony Blair’s New Labour. Indeed, the Tories have been reminding journalists of the Sun’s 1992 front page: “If Neil Kinnock wins the election, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”. This time, they say, Ed Miliband is offering to turn the lights off himself, thanks to his “socialist” energy policy.
Labour were gleeful that Ed Miliband’s spat with the Daily Mail for saying that his father, Ralph “hated Britain”, had stolen the front pages from David Cameron’s speech and all but eclipsed the Tory conference. But the Conservatives clearly think that a price worth paying for throwing the spotlight on a Labour leader they believe has no chance of becoming prime minister. Their reading of the focus groups is that the British voters have already made up their minds that Ed Miliband is a goofy loser, the ‘wrong’ Miliband and that any focus on his personality can only benefit Cameron.
There is something in this of course. Ed Miliband certainly hasn’t ‘sealed the deal’ with English voters, or even Scottish voters despite promoting the kind of agenda that might be thought to appeal to Scots. His problem is that he doesn’t look prime ministerial to most people. He is clearly intelligent, confident, imaginative and quite brave in taking on not only Rupert Murdoch, but also the Daily Mail, but he doesn’t yet have the demeanour of a statesman.
The Tories also believe that they have successfully hung the blame for the financial crash firmly around Labour’s neck. Labour’s “casino economy”, Cameron called it in a savage passage that we will hear again and again over the next 18 months: “The biggest budget deficit in our peacetime history”, he said of Labour’s legacy. “The deepest recession since the Second World War. Millions coming here from overseas while millions of British people were left on welfare. The richest paying lower tax rates than their cleaners. Unsustainable debt-fuelled banks booming – while manufacturing withered away”.
It is pretty rich for the Conservatives to blame Labour for the banking crisis, at the very moment they are trying to block banking reform in Europe and defending bank bonuses. Arguably, the casino economy dates from Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of banking in the 1980s. But there is enough truth in the charge that Gordon Brown helped let the bankers loose by his “light touch” regulation in the City of London to make it stick for many voters.
“Land of hope is Tory” said the PM echoing the last night of the Proms. Well, not in Scotland. But at least no one can say that there is nothing to choose between the Westminster parties. And it looks like the 2015 general election campaign has begun.