David Cameron is a lucky general. The inquest into why the opinion polls wrongly predicted a hung parliament at last May’s general election suggests that, if they had got it right, Ed Miliband might just have become prime minister. The wonky polls locked the media spotlight on to whether a minority Labour government would be propped up by the Scottish National Party, driving wary voters into the Conservatives’ arms.
If the surveys had shown a Tory lead, Mr Cameron would have come under enormous pressure to spell out his £12bn of welfare cuts; his refusal do so might instead have seen the politics of fear work in Labour’s favour.
Mr Cameron is now making good use of his good fortune. This week he made a very important speech. The headlines, briefed in advance, were about demolishing 100 “sink estates”; parenting classes for all mums and dads and better mental health provision. But the heart of the speech was his promise of an “all-out assault on poverty” by boosting the life chances of those stuck at the bottom with little hope of finding the security they crave. He was candid, admitting that a child born in a poor area will die an average of nine years earlier than their peers. Acknowledging that the better off use their social networks and connections to give their children “a brilliant start in life”, the Prime Minister said: “What motivates me is helping the most disadvantaged kids to catch up.”
The landmark speech was that of a man seeking a legacy much greater than as the guy who balanced the nation’s books. It was a throwback to the bold young moderniser who had little chance when he entered the 2005 Tory leadership race but won it. This week’s speech was in line with the compassionate Conservatism of his friend and former adviser Steve Hilton. Although he now lives in California, he remains in contact with Mr Cameron. But the speech was drafted by Ameet Gill, who holds Mr Hilton’s old job as Downing Street’s director of strategy; Christian Guy, a Downing Street aide and former director of the Centre for Social Justice think tank founded by Iain Duncan Smith and Max Chambers, Mr Cameron’s home affairs adviser.
The address was a long way from the hard-nosed Toryism of Sir Lynton Crosby, the Australian strategist who ran the party’s election campaign last year. He would never have allowed Mr Cameron to stray from the “long-term economic plan” and make such a speech during the election. “No votes in all that mate – Labour territory,” he might have drawled. In his own words, the Tories had to “get the barnacles off the boat” – not allow anything to get in the way of their core message.
Today Mr Cameron seems prepared to put some barnacles back. He will make two more speeches -on education, and extremism and community integration-- in the next few weeks, before Europe dominates the agenda again. Having announced he will not seek a third term, he does not have to worry about winning another general election. And, as his mind inevitably turns to his legacy, he has returned to his One Nation roots.
Mr Cameron fully intends to match his words with deeds and that is to be welcomed. A Life Chances Strategy will be published this spring. Yet given his record, we might be forgiven a little scepticism. The Prime Minister acknowledged “the pivotal importance of the first few years of life in determining the adults we become.” But this newspaper revealed this week how the Government tried to bury a report showing the impact of its cuts to the effective Sure Start programme of the previous Labour administration.
Insisting that poverty cannot be measured by income alone, Mr Cameron rejected both Labour’s argument of spending more money on welfare and the Thatcherite mantra that “a rising [economic] tide lifts all boats”. There is a strong case for his Government’s move to a more sophisticated measure of poverty than the traditional one-- less than 60 per cent of median income. But the change also allows the Tories to drop the legal target to which Cameron the Moderniser once signed up – ending child poverty by 2020. Abolishing a target does not abolish poverty. One reason this goal will be missed by miles is that George Osborne’s retreat over tax credit cuts is only a temporary one. The £4.4bn of savings will be found by 2020 via the new Universal Credit. That could destroy the whole point of merging six benefits– to increase work incentives by allowing people to keep more of their extra earnings. That would compound the biggest welfare problem – in-work poverty, which means that two out of three poor children are in households with someone in work. And it would undermine Mr Cameron’s laudable new crusade.
He would like to stay in power until 2019 to see through his social reforms. But there is one very big threat to his legacy strategy. It could be rudely interrupted by a gamble of his own taking: if Britain voted to leave the EU in the referendum expected this summer, Mr Cameron would have to go sooner rather than later. He has to deny that now, so as not to give critics the hope of voting Out to get him out too. But he would have quit if he had lost the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, and would surely have to if Britain voted to leave the EU.
But Mr Cameron's speech suggests that, if the referendum hurdle is cleared, the Tories could seize an historic opportunity to colonise the centre ground and hold it. With Labour veering to the left under Jeremy Corbyn and the shrunken Liberal Democrats off the radar, the Tories would be on track for a long spell in power.