East meets Westminster: Prime Minister hopes to win over “aspiration nation”
00:00 11 October 2012
AS far as Conservative conferences go this one was a bruiser, writes Richard Porritt.
There was little good news – maybe even none. Basically David Cameron and George Osborne once again laid it bare: “It hurts now and it is going to get worse. Deal with it.”
They attempted to woo the middle classes not by offering them any obvious financial breaks to ease there seemingly now permanent status as “squeezed” but by attacking those dreadful guttersnipes who dare to have children while on benefits.
Few would deny there is a great need for welfare reform but using an attack on one group of people – those least likely to vote Tory it should be noted – in a bid to appease another is an uncomfortable schadenfreude.
Rewarding hard work makes sense across the political spectrum. But fears remain that those who really do need help - those who are the most vulnerable in society - will fall through the cracks.
And then there are burglars ... This Tory conference has used house breakers to win votes. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said he wants a change to make it harder for people to prosecuted if they attack intruders. Actually what he was announcing was something of a nonsense because the law already says as much. The only real difference is emphasis on the word “grossly”.
So if the violence someone uses to protect themselves and their loved ones during a breaking-in is just “disproportionate” (quick thwack around the back of the head while the ne’er-do-well is scampering out of the kitchen) and not “grossly disproportionate” (a 12-hour session of water-boarding in the basement) the householder will be fine. However, leading lawyers have laughed at Mr Grayling’s plans saying each case is already judged individually. It does appear to be headline grabbing rather than vote winning in the long-term.
But Tories would ask “what else can we offer?” – there is no money to throw at massive tax breaks and promises like a yes/no vote on Europe are too big to pledge with little more than two years to go before the next election.
So this week has been about proving the Conservatives have the stomach for the fight – and largely they have shown their mettle.
After a good conference for Labour and a stellar performance from leader Ed Miliband, Mr Cameron needed a strong reply.
His speech ticked the boxes. It was delivered well and avoided the big talking points on which the party still could be divided as business as usual begins again back in Westminster in the coming weeks.
The Prime Minister wanted to quietly rouse the troops and the nation beyond with a message of “we have come this far - no turning back”.
But the hook of “aspiration nation” which he hopes will ring in the ears of Britain in the next few years is a dud. It is a clumsy catchphrase straight out of BBC political satire The Thick of It which will be forgotten within weeks.
And surely Britons are fed up of politicians chasing the Olympic bandwagon by now? Yet again the PM reminded us how we are 22nd in terms of population in the world and yet finished 3rd in the medal table - what exactly has this got to do with Mr Cameron?
But there were highs in his 50-minute address especially when he focused on the gargantuan challenge still facing the nation.
He insisted there would be no let-up in the Government’s deficit reduction programme, which was “not an alternative to a growth plan - it’s the very foundation of our growth plan”. And - with a quiver of real anger in his voice - he rejected Labour’s Plan B for borrowing to stimulate growth as “a massive gamble with our economy and our future”.
And in a brave move the Eton-educated PM even tackled the “toff” allegations repeatedly slung his way by his opponents. He denied the Tories were the party of the better-off but instead represented the “want-to-be better-off”. He added: “I’m not here to defend privilege, I’m here to spread it.”
Much of the speech hit the right notes with MPs and supporters gathered in Birmingham. Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP Dan Poulter said: “I was very impressed - a strong sense of mission from a Government that wants to reward people who work hard and strive to do the best for their families and a Prime Minister who believes in looking after the most vulnerable people in society.”
Alongside Mr Miliband’s tour de force last week Mr Cameron fell short. But he will not be concerned about that. This conference could have been explosive with scandals in the background and Mayor of London Boris Johnson lurking in the wings sapping the applause from the PM.
As it turned out, it was a case of job done. But Mr Cameron knows that no matter how well he personally performs in the next few years the election will go down to one thing alone - Plan A. His eggs are all in one basket.