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Michael Brown: Between 'fairness' and rough justice

Mr Cameron's attempt to design 'fair' cuts seems outwardly attractive, but he is unwittingly ceding philosophical groundto his political opponents

This week I attended my 65th party conference. Since 1970, I have listened to seven Tory leaders deliver a total of 39 conference speeches – and three Labour leaders and four Lib Dem leaders deliver 26 speeches between them. Every phrase, soundbite and platitude was in most of them: new ideas, good ideas, big ideas; new society, fairer society, free society and big society. There have also been traditional values, Labour values and family values. But like autumn leaves, most were blown to the wind moments after I boarded the trains back home.

It is barely a fortnight since I heard the Deputy Prime Minister's oration – but nothing has stuck. I can just about remember Ed Miliband muttering something, at Labour, about the "squeezed middle" and, even without my sieve-like memory, Mr Cameron's "your country needs you" offering this week will be lucky to stick in the collective mind of the voters by the end of this weekend.

Of the memorable lines and pathetic jokes, written by armies of speech-writers slaving over previous party leaders' hotel bedroom floors at 3am, only "the lady's not for turning", from 1980, and Neil Kinnock's 1985 attack on council leaders scuttling round in taxis with redundancy notices, lurk vaguely in our minds. Twenty years ago, Margaret Thatcher delivered her last conference speech before her demise six weeks later. But I'm damned if I can remember a word she said. Ironically, "never underestimate the determination of the quiet man" (Iain Duncan Smith, 2003) is perhaps the most vivid phrase in recent times – but only because it contributed directly to the dramatic events surrounding the then Tory leader's downfall a fortnight later.

Leaders' conference speeches, in isolation, rarely stand the test of history, and few future students of political history will be quoting from this week's speech by the Prime Minister. The "Big Society" may yet take flight, but so far it still falls flat among the Tory faithful and the wider public. The call to the nation to play its part in a wartime spirit of unity remains to be answered.

So like all conference seasons, all the words of 2010 will soon be forgotten, notwithstanding the seismic political events that have happened during the previous six months. Context, however, rather than speeches, does determine the annual party conference mood and this usually translates into the consciousness of the voters. The Tories and the Lib Dems now have ministers with all the trappings to make them and their supporters feel important. Coalition and co-operation have successfully defined the new spirit of government. Labour were bereft of the red boxes but had a leadership election that gave their supporters a feeling of escapism.

All parties are waiting for the comprehensive spending review. It would have been interesting to see how different the speeches would have been had they been delivered after the public expenditure axe had fallen.

But one common theme struck a controversial and potentially discordant note at all three conferences, against which every voter will be asked to measure the method and manner of the cuts to come: fairness. This supposedly simple concept, understood so easily by every child when measuring schoolteacher or parental rough justice, threatens to dominate and distort political discourse and judgement for the remainder of the Coalition Government's term of office.

"Fairness" is the watchword of the Coalition and now replaces the normal pledge of every previous government to increase our standard of living. During this government's term of office, most of us will become worse off. But our acceptance of declining personal wealth is conditional upon the "fairness" of our collective impoverishment. If bankers succeed in thumbing their noses at Mr Cameron's injunction for restraint, his fairness agenda is finished. The manner and distribution of the forthcoming cuts will become the template by which the voters will judge whether they are acceptable.

Until now, the Government has merely concentrated on the sums involved – 25 per cent cuts, on average, across all departments over four years – totalling £83bn. But arguments will now centre on the guiding principle of fairness. And what a can of worms this will unleash. Already the furore over child benefit gives a foretaste of what is to come. Polls indicate the public buys the case that the "broadest shoulders" should bear the greatest burden. But the anomaly of a working couple earning, together, £80,000 keeping the child benefit, while a single income of just over £45,000 loses the benefit, severely undermines the "fairness" test. Fairness is, of course, an entirely subjective test and can mean different things according to whether a voter is a victim or a beneficiary. I have a suspicion that the cry of "it's unfair" will be louder than ministerial claims to the contrary.

Mr Cameron has, so far, been a master of appearing to kick his own party members. And it is easy to understand his calculation that it looked better to the wider audience if he could show he was hurting his own supporters as a way of winning wider support, elsewhere, for the horrors his Chancellor inflicts on the rest of us. It is one thing to annoy Tory party members, however, but quite another to take on Tory voters.

But if "fairness" is the new template of government, others will suggest that this argument must logically be extended to include "equality". Already Will Hutton of the Work Foundation has legitimately questioned whether it is "fair" for those lucky enough to inherit wealth to expect an eventual reduction in inheritance tax. This Tory promise has been put on ice, as a consequence of both the Coalition agreement and unaffordability. Why shouldn't the Chancellor now, however, on grounds of equity, reverse entirely his aspiration to cut this tax? The cry "it's not fair" that accident of birth and circumstance should result in untaxed windfall gains for those lucky enough to inherit their parents' property will be a clarion call from those on the left.

Mr Cameron's attempt to design "fair" cuts seems outwardly attractive, but he is unwittingly ceding philosophical ground to his political opponents – even to those on the Lib Dem backbenches already nervous about their relationship with the Coalition. If fairness is the new mantra, what about "fair votes"?

The omens for the Government being able to maintain its fairness defence are not good. Already, when a junior health minister proposed a withdrawal of universal free milk to children of nursery age – a potential saving of £500m – the Prime Minister was quick to backtrack lest the tag of "milk snatcher" define his premiership. Yet that was a genuinely "fair" cut affecting everyone regardless of income.

Yesterday's preliminary announcement from Lord Hutton regarding public sector pensions will also be judged against the new "fairness" criteria. For those low-paid nurses and ancillary workers, who have planned their retirement on the basis of certain long-held assumptions, the seeds of industrial unrest will have been sown.

The cuts are bound to be arbitrary, with huge doses of rough justice few ministers will have anticipated. That will not make them wrong, but they are bound to be regarded as "unfair" by those they adversely affect. While ministers may publicly defend their claims of fairness, "tough" will inevitably be their private riposte.