The Prime Minister seems to have taken his eye off the ball and Labour leader Ed Miliband now has everything to gain, writes John McTernan
David Cameron made a powerful, passionate and at times highly personal speech at the Tory party conference. It received tumultuous applause and a standing ovation in the conference hall, and was splashed across front pages yesterday. Yet politically this was a disastrous speech, and there are three main reasons why the Prime Minister will live to regret it.
First, he has conceded massive ground to Ed Miliband. It is one of Ed’s little-noted triumphs that he – essentially – drives huge parts of the Tory agenda. It was Ed’s consent, not the Tory party’s – let alone the Liberal Democrats’ – which gave the go-ahead to the bombing of Islamic State. His promise to freeze energy prices that led to frantic Tory attempts to muscle the energy companies into line, and then to the perverse cuts in green energy. And this week it was Miliband’s workplace agenda that determined Mr Cameron’s promise to raise the National Minimum Wage and to ban zero-hours contracts.
Mr Cameron may well, in his heart of hearts, be a compassionate Conservative – he just waits until Miliband has market-tested an idea and then adopts it. Not leadership, but followership. But the most noteworthy concession to Milibandism was the section of the PM’s speech devoted to the NHS. I have no doubt he sincerely loves the health service, and his personal experience has formed not just his views but his emotions too. However, Mr Cameron’s promise to the NHS was actually a slow death. No health service in the developed world has had the spending constraints imposed on it that the Tories have forced on health in the past four years. Now Mr Cameron says that this “health austerity” will last for a full decade. Given demographic pressures and health-care inflation, this would be an unprecedented reduction in real NHS spend. And Mr Cameron had no answer to Miliband’s mansion tax. So, for all his passion, the PM has pledged to spend precisely £2.5 billion less on health than Labour. Not, in the end, a successful foray into enemy territory for Mr Cameron.
Second, Mr Cameron blew his party’s economic credentials with this speech. He faced a strategic choice. Either his pitch for the next election could be: “It’s tough, but we’re not through the worst. We need more austerity. You can’t trust Labour to do the right thing.” Or, he could have said: “You’ve had the pain, now here’s the gain. The austerity is over and we can afford a giveaway.”
Two opposing messages. But Mr Cameron chose not to choose. Instead he said both things. This may well have seemed smart on the day but it opens him to a continued series of questions. Where are the next £22bn of public spending cuts going to come from? Local government undoubtedly, among other areas. So social care will come under massive pressure. Expect the NHS to be asked to suck up this pressure – which further undermines the pledge to protect health spending. And housing capital will fall – putting pressure on social housing and increasing the house-building gap. Then there’s the question of the tax cuts. They’re around £7bn – and totally unfunded.
For the Tories, the most worrying newspaper reflection on Mr Cameron’s speech will have been the Financial Times leader which said: “While this may help to lure back those dallying with Ukip, it raises a fundamental question about the economic credibility of the Conservative case … in the bid both to draw a clear dividing line with Labour and reassure the wavering right, they have staked out a fiscal position that is neither sober nor realistic.” Ouch! This acute – and accurate – analysis will be proved right over the coming months and the Tory position will unravel. Not least because Labour will simply be able to point out again and again that the Tories have unfunded promises while Labour does not. And that while the Tories will hit the lowest-paid the hardest, Labour will only tax the rich. Another battleground that Ed will relish.
Third, while tacking to the left to match Ed Miliband’s populism, Mr Cameron has also marched to the right to match Ukip. Now, I think James Maxton was right to say that if you can’t ride two horses you shouldn’t be in the circus, but this is ridiculous. The turn to Ukip involves trashing the Human Rights Act. Now this simply incorporates into UK law existing rights that citizens have through the European Convention on Human Rights. Are they excessive? No. And don’t take my word for it, this is what Lord Bingham said:
“Let me briefly remind you of the protected rights, some of which I have already mentioned. The right to life. The right not to be tortured or subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The right not to be enslaved. The right to liberty and security of the person. The right to a fair trial. The right not to be retrospectively penalised. The right to respect for private and family life. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Freedom of expression. Freedom of assembly and association. The right to marry. The right not to be discriminated against in the enjoyment of those rights. The right not to have our property taken away except in the public interest and with compensation. The right of fair access to the country’s educational system. The right to free elections. Which of these rights, I ask, would we wish to discard? Are any of them trivial, superfluous, unnecessary? Are any them un-British?”
Not only are they not un-British, they are not even an offence to Conservatives. The convention was co-written by distinguished Scottish Tory jurist David Maxwell Fyfe, 1st Earl of Kilmuir. And lauded by Winston Churchill.
We have the grotesque chaos of a Tory government, a Tory government, seeking to restrict the rights of British citizens. For the British Bill of Rights is not simply a matter of putting parliament in control of laws affecting us. It is a diminution of our rights and a strengthening of the executive. This is the Tory dilemma. Facing too many ways at once. This will not stand.