David Cameron has come under fire for failing to match his moderate rhetoric with firm policies as he made a clear pitch for voters in the centre ground of British politics in his first keynote speech to the Conservative party conference since winning the election.
Setting out his intention to exploit Labour’s shift to the left under Jeremy Corbyn, the Prime Minister pledged to pursue the values of "freedom, democracy and equality” to fight the underlying social problems of poverty, lack of opportunity, discrimination and extremism that he said were holding the UK back.
In a speech that on numerous occasions embraced Blairite themes, Mr Cameron told his party to tackle the “big battles, big arguments” in pursuit of “a greater Britain”.
He warned his party not to tear itself apart over Europe ahead of the EU referendum, urging delegates to “keep our heads as Labour lose theirs”.
But he has already faced criticism that the Government’s record in office and lack of policy announcements in the speech undermine Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne’s vow to be the party of equality and the party of workers.
Critics have pointed to Theresa May’s hard-line speech on immigration and the refusal to back down on £4.5bn a year cuts to working tax credits cuts, which even some Tories are against.
The only new policy announcements in the speech were plans to shut down Muslim madrassa schools which teach children hatred and intolerance, plans to improve the chances of children in social care and a pre-briefed announcement on 200,000 new “starter homes” which will relax planning rules to allow the construction of “affordable” homes to turn “generation rent to generation buy”.
Shadow education secretary Lucy Powell acknowledged that Mr Cameron’s speech was a pitch to the centre ground but added: “His actions and policies aren’t. They are the opposite”.
And Labour MP Wes Streeting said he “could applaud Cameron’s speech if only it were backed up by real action”, saying the “phoney” living wage and tax credit cuts means his rhetoric “rings hollow”.
Among the Tory policies that contradict Mr Cameron’s centrist rhetoric are:
• Cuts to working tax credits that will leave 3 million families £1,300 a year worse off from next April
• Refusal to take in more than just 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years
• A Home Secretary who thinks immigration is a threat to social cohesion and says the net impact of migration to the UK is “close to zero”.
• The biggest shakeup of trade union laws that will impose significant restrictions on workers’ ability to take strike action
• A manifesto pledge to abolish the Human Rights Act
• Relaxing the fox hunting ban
• A 1 per cent pay freeze for Britain’s 6 million public sector workers
• Scrapping grants for the poorest students
• Refusing to apply the new living wage to under 25-year-olds
At times the language was among the most modernising and left-wing we have heard from Mr Cameron, devoting a whole passage of his speech to tackling discrimination against ethnic minorities and gay people, declaring: “you cannot have true opportunity without equality”.
He said: “Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names?
“This is a true story: One young black girl had to change her name to Elizabeth before she got any calls to interviews. That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful.
“We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally.”
He made repeated veiled and direct attacks on Mr Corbyn, exploiting his perceived weaknesses on patriotism and national security by telling Tory delegates that he wanted to see “less Britain-bashing, more national pride”.
And in his most scathing attack on the Labour leader since his election, the Prime Minister said: “We cannot let that man inflict his security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating ideology on the country we love.”
Making clear his intention to become the party of equality and opportunity as he made his pitch for Blairite voters, Mr Cameron said: “You can’t have true opportunity without real equality. And I want our party to get this right.
“Yes us, the party of the fair chance; the party of the equal shot; the party that doesn’t care where you come from, but only where you’re going; us, the Conservatives, I want us to end discrimination and finish the fight for real equality in our country today.”
He added: “It becomes clearer by the day that the Labour Party has completely abandoned any notion of these ideas.”
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