Prime Minister David Cameron closed the U.K.’s political conference season with a speech that focused on attacking his Labour Party opponent, Ed Miliband, while appealing to voters to stick with his economic program.
It was a rare success for an opposition leader that Miliband forced Cameron to engage with him. The prime minister mentioned Labour 25 times in his 49-minute speech to the Conservative Party convention in Manchester, attacking Miliband as anti-business. He called the Labour leader’s plan, announced last week, to shift some of the tax burden to large companies from small firms as “the most damaging, nonsensical, twisted economic policy you could possibly come up with.”
Cameron also took swipes at his coalition partners, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, as he made the case for a single-party Conservative government after the 2015 general election.
“What people want to know now is: was the struggle worth it?” Cameron said. “The struggle will only be worth it if we as a country finish the job we’ve started. Our economy may be turning the corner -- and of course that’s great. But we still haven’t finished paying for Labour’s debt crisis. If anyone thinks that’s over, done, dealt with -- they’re living in a fantasy land.”
The Conservatives have attempted to use the conference to portray themselves as the champions of “hard-working people,” with policy announcements on providing mortgage guarantees and making the long-term jobless take part in community work.
Cameron used his speech to paint the party as the friend of enterprise and business in contrast to Miliband. At the opposition party’s conference in Brighton last week, Miliband used his keynote speech to promise to cap energy prices, seize land from developers who don’t use it and pay for a cut in local taxes for small businesses by reversing a corporation-tax reduction for Britain’s largest companies, if Labour wins the 2015 election.
“Profit, wealth creation, tax cuts, enterprise, these are not dirty, elitist words,” Cameron said. “They are the solution because it’s not government that creates jobs, it’s businesses. It’s businesses that get wages in people’s pockets, food on their tables, hope for their families and success for our country.”
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London, said the prime minister’s speech carried “a real risk of fighting on the other guy’s terrain, and of backing business so much that he risks coming over as their champion, if not their creature.”
Labour has enjoyed a bounce in the polls after its conference last week, reversing a trend that saw the Tories making up ground as the economy strengthened in recent months.
In a YouGov Plc poll published today, Labour was at 41 percent support, 10 points ahead of the Conservatives. The survey of 1,914 adults was conducted Sept. 30 and yesterday. YouGov didn’t specify a margin of error.
The opposition party also managed to dominate the headlines during the Tory conference after Miliband challenged the Daily Mail newspaper over an article it ran describing his father Ralph, a Marxist academic who died in 1994, as “The Man Who Hated Britain.”
Cameron concentrated his fire on Labour, without addressing the threat to the Tories from the U.K. Independence Party, which had 12 percent backing in the YouGov poll. The increase in support for UKIP has been discussed this week by activists concerned that it will take support from the Conservatives in voting for the European Parliament next year and cost them seats in the 2015 general election.
“Wishing for something, caring about something, that’s not enough,” Cameron said. “You can’t conjure up a dynamic economy, a strong society, fantastic schools, all with the stroke of a minister’s pen. It takes a mixture of hard work, common sense and above all the right values.”
Cameron praised a series of senior ministers by name, including Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Home Secretary Theresa May, Education Secretary Michael Gove and Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, suggesting that a reorganization of his ministers scheduled for the coming weeks will be confined to the lower ranks.
The prime minister reprised the theme of his conference speech last year, that Britain is in a “global race.” Miliband attacked this last week, saying that Cameron “thinks for Britain to win the global race, you have to lose: lower wages, worse terms and conditions, fewer rights at work.”
Cameron said this was a misunderstanding of his argument, and that he sees the U.K. as competing with places such as California and South Korea, with a focus on higher skills rather than lower wages.
The Tory leader also made the case for the proposed 50 billion-pound ($80 billion) high-speed rail line between London and the north of England, which is opposed by some in his party as it runs through traditionally Tory rural districts. Ed Balls, Labour’s Treasury spokesman, hinted last week that a future Labour government might back out of the project.
Cameron didn’t make any policy announcements in the speech, preferring to use it to outline his political aspirations and goals for a single-party Conservative government, while returning to his theme of the “big society.”
He underscored a pledge made by Osborne two days ago to get rid of the budget deficit and run a surplus by 2020 if the Conservatives are re-elected in 2015. That, Cameron said, will aid the economy and lift living standards by keeping interest rates low. He also held out the prospect of tax cuts for “hard-working people,” a signal he will carry on squeezing welfare and day-to-day spending to meet the new fiscal objective.
A majority Tory government would aim to restrict welfare benefits to people under the age of 25 who are not in education or work. The idea will be formed into a policy which will appear in the party’s manifesto, Cameron’s office said.
“Our society, welfare, schools, all reformed, all rebuilt with one aim, one mission in mind,” Cameron said. “To make this country, at long last and for the first time ever, a land of opportunity for all.”