David Cameron has yet again delivered a belter of a party conference speech, peppered with announcements. His performance is a reminder of why, even now, he remains the Tory Party’s greatest single asset. His speech was a powerful invocation of the strengths of Conservatism, perhaps the clearest he has given from a conference stage. It was passionate, eloquent and, overall, the speech of a Prime Minister. What a contrast with the Ed Miliband’s attempt last week.
There were promises galore. The advantage of holding a party conference before the Liberal Democrats is that you can scoop their policies – in his case, announcing another increase to the tax-free income tax threshold from £10,500 to £12,500. And like the LibDems he hailed this as a great tax cut – although, in his case, he’d just be increasing the threshold in line with RPI inflation.
This threshold rise is a LibDem trick, stolen today with great effect. Clegg will be fuming. It allows you to claim a tax cuts for 30m people is great for election posters (you may see it in a banner advert above this blog) even if the actual amount for low-paid workers is tiny.
Cameron also borrowed a Labour trick. Ed Miliband said he’d raise the minimum wage to £8/hour by 2020 which sounds generous until you remember that inflation would probably take it there anyway. Ah the games, the games.
Cameron’s innovation was to say he’d do the same for the best-paid 10 per cent by raising the threshold of the 40p level of tax from £41,900k to £50k by 2020.
A clever move: a promise that is far less expensive than it sounds. If the £10,500 starting threshold was uprated along with RPI inflation it would be £12,300 by 2020. Not far short of his new £12,500 target. And if the 40p rate was raised along with RPI inflation it would be £49,300 by 2020. So the £50k is just a wee bit of a rise. But this is far better than what he has been doing so far – refusing to lift the threshold in line with inflation and in so doing hauling all manner of people inside the 40p rate (see below).
You can guarantee that tomorrow’s press will talk about a tax cut for Middle England – rather than a promise not to raise more stealth taxes via fiscal drag. Clever old Cameron.
His promise to keep on raising the NHS budget was the genuinely expensive, and somewhat at odds with the rest of the speech. Is caring really measured by the cost of a public service? And if so, what does that say about his attitude towards schools, our military and the police? “(He also denounced Labour as the ‘party of big debt’ which was a bit cheeky given his record.) This NHS pledge will mean all other departments are butchered in the next parliament as health moves to almost half of departmental spending – but in 2015, as with 2010, it’s deemed an election priority. And it comes at one hell of a cost, as the OBR pointed out recently (below).
It was unusual to hear Cameron reference his Etonian education, which he instinctively dislikes doing – as opposed to Boris, who doesn’t care. Cameron shouldn’t care either: as he rightly said, Tories think everyone, not just the rich, should have choice in education. And he was right to berate the privately-educated Tristram Hunt to become the enemy of what used to be a New Labour agenda.
Here’s Tristram’s reaction:-
@FraserNelson Sorry to miss Cameron’s unbecoming rant. In meetings with the Singapore Education Minister on improving teacher training…
— Tristram Hunt (@TristramHuntMP) October 1, 2014
Social justice was woven throughout his speech and the result was a coherent, radical and appealing agenda that may just take the Tories over the wire next May. He was also right to frame the election as a choice: Cameron or Miliband in No10? I met a few Tory candidates in winnable seats who say this is the question which gets the best results. Cameron may frustrate those of us who wished he were more radical, and gave knockout speeches more regularly. But after four years of austerity, his enduing popularity is the Tory party’s greatest weapon. He knows it, and they know it.