How Ed Miliband gave David Cameron a road to the centre ground (where elections are won)

The Prime Minister can now claim legitimately to be associated with responsibility, aspiration, and balancing the books. Labour, alas, cannot

Share

Even more unexpected than the European Union winning the Nobel Peace prize, the winner of the party conference season is … David Cameron. This was the paradoxical result of Ed Miliband making a speech that most of its audience found impressive. A few of us were, I admit, unmoved by the amazing feat of walking and talking for 65 minutes without much hesitation, repetition or deviation, but the rave reviews for the Labour leader saved the Prime Minister by forcing him to respond.

Cameron's speech was defensive, devoted to an unusual extent to rebutting the charge that he was a posh boy who went to a posh school and therefore could not represent "one nation". But it was also the chance, for which he had been waiting, to move his party back to the centre after the rightward drift of the past six months.

You did not have to agree with it to recognise that Cameron's speech was a rehearsal of powerful arguments that are more likely to persuade undecided voters than Miliband's empty rhetoric.

For all the difference they made to this month's opinion polls, the parties need not have bothered with annual conferences. Miliband's personal ratings edged up from the depths of contempt, so that he is now only slightly more unpopular than Cameron. But the Labour lead is within the margin of error of the nine or 10 points it has been since the Budget. Few people pay much attention to mid-term political speeches. Yet they tell us a great deal about how things may play out when the battle is eventually joined.

In his speech, Cameron finally engaged with exhibit A, adduced in evidence by Miliband the week before: the cut in the top rate of income tax that will take effect next year. The moment it was leaked by the Liberal Democrats before the Budget in March, this tax cut for the rich has seemed to be the biggest mistake made by Cameron and George Osborne so far. At a stroke, it undercut the language of shared sacrifice and "all in it together".

The Prime Minister was helped by Miliband's suggestion that the tax cut would take the form of a cheque written by HM Revenue and Customs to "millionaires", including Cabinet ministers. That allowed Cameron to turn the debate to Miliband's apparent failure to understand that money raised in tax belongs to the taxpayer.

"Let me explain to you how it works," said Cameron, referring to his opponent by name, something a prime minister usually avoids doing for fear of conceding equality of status. "So if we cut taxes, we're not giving them money – we're taking less of it away."

It was not a whole answer. The symbolism of a tax cut for people on incomes over £150,000 remains awkward. And there is still a tension between the Tories laying claim to "aspiration" and their pointing out, as George Osborne and Cameron both did in their speeches, that "the rich will pay a greater share of tax in every year of this Parliament than in any one of the 13 years under Labour".

However, it is clearer now how the Conservatives will fight on the central ground of the economy and the public finances, even if growth remains disappointing. It is no use Ed Balls protesting that more borrowing now might actually reduce borrowing in the longer term. The Tories will simply repeat Cameron's line: "Labour: the party of one notion – more borrowing." All Miliband and Balls can do is promise to stick to Tory spending plans, and hope that the folk memory of their splurge-and-bust will fade.

Cameron also had a response to the other perception of Tory weakness: that he and Osborne have no programme except cutting the deficit. The welfare section of his speech tied a popular policy that Miliband won't match – capping housing benefit at the level of average workers' earnings – to a "responsibility" message. Again, workable welfare reform is complex and expensive, but the details are trumped by Labour putting itself on the side of recipients rather than of taxpayers who fund it.

Then, on schools, Cameron performed the truly extraordinary feat of presenting himself, an Old Etonian, as a better and more authentic champion of the right of the many to the quality of education currently available to the lucky few. While Miliband pretended to be something he is not, a struggler who had survived his comprehensive school of hard knocks, Cameron walked off with Tony Blair's aspiration of "independent state schools for all". Left-wing commentators with tin ears wailed about the "oxymoron" of "spreading privilege", deaf to how it might be heard by less ideological or pedantic parents.

That is what the argument is going to be at the general election. The party of balancing the books, of responsibility and aspiration, on the side of taxpayers and parents who want the best for their children, against – well, what?

The only question is how much the Conservative Party will do to destabilise its leader, who is its best hope of holding on to power. The first test is to avoid a nervous breakdown after the Corby by-election and police commissioner elections on 15 November.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/johnrentoul

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: The spurious Tory endorsement that misfired

Oliver Wright
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence