Andrew Grice: Cameron must fill holes left by a policy-free conference

The Tories will be relieved that, so far, there is no sign that the past three weeks will interrupt Cameron's glide towards Downing Street.

Share
Related Topics

Who were the winners and losers from the last party conference season before the general election? The Conservatives won the battle to secure the most favourable media coverage. They will be relieved this weekend that, so far, there is no sign that the past three weeks will interrupt David Cameron's glide towards Downing Street.

I say "so far" because, by deciding to answer the criticism that they were policy-lite, the Tories have taken a big risk. They deserve credit for doing so. Mr Cameron and George Osborne agonised long and hard about when to unveil some of the spending cuts needed to tackle Britain's "debt crisis".

The two men who drive the Tory project keep any differences between them very quiet, rightly determined to avoid the debilitating battles like those between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Aides claim that the Tory leader and shadow Chancellor were equally keen to unveil some measures now, but Mr Osborne was probably the first to reach that conclusion.

A wage freeze for 4 million public sector workers, a rise in the state pension age and a cut in tax credits for the middle classes give Labour precious ammunition. The "Tory cuts" threat can be magnified on the doorsteps ("The Tories say the wage freeze is only for one year, but if they get into power...").

Some senior Tories are nervous. "We didn't need to say anything at all," one told me. Others wanted to wait until next month's pre-Budget report maps out Labour's cuts, so that the Tories could trump them. Tory leaders insist that there is nothing in their prospectus that Treasury officials would not put in Alistair Darling's "cuts options" file.

I suspect the pay freeze was road-tested with voters in advance. I'm told there are relatively few public sector employees among swing voters in the marginal seats that will decide the election, and they are outweighed by private sector workers who feel it is the public sector's turn to share the pain.

In one sense, Mr Brown was a winner from the conference season. He propped up his own position within the Labour Party. More plots to oust him will be hatched when MPs return to Westminster from their summer recess on Monday. But the public display of total loyalty to Mr Brown in Brighton by Lord Mandelson (who gets a winner's award for his electrifying speech) makes a cabinet putsch less likely.

The Prime Minister's conference speech worked well enough on the day but looks less impressive now that Mr Cameron has had the last word. Mr Brown's reluctance to include any spending cuts left his speech sounding like a traditional list of pre-election goodies, and therefore seems out of kilter with the times.

If he is still stuck in his old tramline of "Labour investment versus Tory cuts", the Tories will continue to set the agenda. It would reinforce their "change" message, as they present Mr Cameron as offering a new politics, as well as their claims to offer honesty about the scale of the economic crisis and the remedies needed.

Yet the Tories' honesty has its limits. Senior figures know that part of the black hole in the public finances will have to be filled by tax rises but they look the other way when you ask them whether they are going to admit it before the election.

On Europe, Mr Cameron appears dishonest. His aides were frustrated that the issue reared its head after the Irish Yes vote for the Treaty of Lisbon, on the eve of the Tory conference. Europe was not on their "media grid". If they win the election, they will find themselves juggling many balls that are not on their grid.

After a brief wobble, the Tories displayed their hunger for power by remaining disciplined on Europe, but the underlying tensions will surface if Mr Cameron wins office. I predict that hardline Eurosceptics will be disappointed if the treaty has already been ratified. Mr Cameron says he would "not let matters rest" but when I asked one Cameroon what that meant, he smiled: "We WILL let matters rest!". Trouble ahead.

Mr Osborne, called the weakest link by Labour as it struggles to land punches on Mr Cameron, was a winner. He delivered the most significant speech of the conference season. It should help to allay City doubts that he's a boy in a man's job, yet his "we're all in this together" slogan was undermined by retaining as policy a cut in inheritance tax for the very rich.

Mr Cameron's effective address makes him a winner too but raises many questions. Blaming Britain's problems on "big government" may provide some cover for cuts but doesn't really work in the current climate. Who prevented the banks from going bust and millions of people losing their savings? Whose spending around the world will stop recession turning into depression? How can poverty be tackled without government intervention?

While the Liberal Democrats are well placed to win one in four votes come the election, they are ignored by most media and so were happy that their Bournemouth conference got noticed at all. But the halo of Vince Cable slipped. A policy that looked good on day one – a tax on people whose homes are worth more than £1m – fell apart when the media asked some basic questions and got the impression the policy was drawn up on the back of a matchbox. It may cost the party votes, especially in London and the South. The Tories love it.

In terms of the overall mood at the conferences, Labour rediscovered its tribal instincts but it could not puncture the fin de siecle atmosphere. The Tories, while desperate to avoid the dangerous cocktail of champagne and complacency, looked like a party on the brink of power.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A police officer carries a casualty to safety  

Tunisia attack proves that we cannot stop terrorists carrying out operations against Britons in Muslim countries

Robert Verkaik
Alan Titchmarsh MP?  

Alan Titchmarsh MP? His independent manifesto gets my vote

Jane Merrick
How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue