Thankfully conference speeches don’t win general elections. There is no denying that Dave’s final performance at the Tory party’s annual gathering was masterful. It oozed the prime ministerial, that much exalted but seldom-attained quality. His speech was passionate, confident, coherent. Apart from an untimely Freudian (“… these are the people we resent“), Dave acted the part well. He did what he is genuinely good at: putting on a show.
As delegates pack their bags and fish forgotten prawn vol-au-vents from their pockets, those not thinking forbidden UKIP thoughts might have a spring in their step. Dave made pitched the Tories as the party for everybody, as a trade union for the stalwart hard-working people of Britain. They are the party of social justice, the one who will abolish youth unemployment by refusing social security assistance to anyone aged between 18 and 21; the party who makes work pay by taking more low earners out of tax while clobbering them with £500 worth of tax credit cuts; and lastly the party who intent on rewarding hard work by raising the 40p tax threshold to £50k/year, handing yet another tax cut to the 15% wealthiest people. If social justice is the redistribution of resource from the poor to the well off, then no one can touch the Tories.
In many ways, Dave speech was pitched to the middle ground. The thing is the Tories haven’t a clue what that middle ground looks like. The way Iain Duncan Smith punched the air when Dave paraded his tax cut for the rich tells you that that’s where they think middle Britain is, not the average and median wage of around £24k. On the tax credit cut too. Osborne defended this on Monday by suggesting the majority had brought into austerity and would be happy to do their bit. And this is the man many Tories hail as a political genius.
It doesn’t take a particularly canny operator to note that while the rich gain, those of more modest means will be covering the bill. Here’s some news for Osbo, Dave, and their hired Australian help. The centre ground is sceptical of Europe, immigration and social security, but is to the Tories’ left on job security, tax, privatisation, the NHS, house building, pensions, the minimum wage and a good deal more. Unfortunately, that centre ground is also mired in fatalism, hence no slam dunk for a Labour leadership determined to softly step its way to victory next year.
What Dave delivered today was a speech that wallowed in British patriotism, a celebration of our country as a collective endeavour embracing everyone. Yet despite himself this was a core vote speech. And even then, the core who are swinging or have swung to UKIP will find nothing here to dissuade them from supporting the purple people bleaters. As Matt Goodwin notes, a few tax bribes will not buy off UKIP support. They are for the most part deeply anxious, anomic, and ill at ease with what they think Britain has become. Forget the economy. It’s that sense of self-security, stupid.
Can we take anything from Dave’s speech? Yes. If Labour have a so-called “35% strategy” then this is the Conservatives’ 15% strategy. It signals the hard limits of the Tory imagination and their incapacity to overcome the organic crisis afflicting British Conservatism. A good speech, yes; but a loser’s speech all the same. The general election next year is Labour’s to lose.