FleishmanHillard Insight: Cameron’s Conference Speech

Going into his speech today, David Cameron had two principal goals – firstly, to address effectively the threat posed by UKIP. Secondly, to make inroads into Labour territory. By most reckoning, he more than rose to the task.

Coming onto stage to The Killers’ hit Mr Brightside, the Prime Minister delivered what many people will come to say is one of the best speeches he has given to his party. In deliberate contrast to Miliband last week, this was a forceful, statesmanlike display – deliberately Prime Ministerial and authoritative, playing on one of the Conservatives’ greatest strengths. It immediately struck a tone of sober leadership, discussing the Scottish Referendum and his participation in commemorations of the two world wars.

The speech was also a sharp and coherent pitch to the middle classes and swing voters. It contained many announcements, including key tax cuts for millions of people though many of the promises will only be delivered at the end of the next Tory Parliament.

His central argument was that the central choice at the election was one between Labour and the Conservatives – and that a vote for UKIP was effectively a vote for Labour. The Tories were the party with a record of success, a vision for the future, and a clear understanding of how to get there. They get the fundamentals right – and this then allows them to continue delivering the services upon which we all rely.

For Labour he offered derision – they were a party of high tax and high spending, completely in hock to their trade union masters. Labour are ‘the party of something-for-nothing, and human wrongs under the banner of human rights.’ They mismanaged the economy in power and forget about it now.

By contrast, the Tory offer was both optimistic and challenging. Cameron boldly claimed credit for the economic upswing, and promised full employment in Britain and the abolition of youth unemployment.

Noting that ‘you can only have a strong NHS if you have a strong economy’, Cameron gave a direct response to Miliband last week, accusing Labour of ‘spreading complete and utter lies’, angrily asserting – in a revival of his pre-2010 language – that as the father of a sick child, he knew first-hand the vital importance of the health service. Cameron gave a robust defence of the Government’s handling of the NHS, and committed the Tories to protecting and increasing its budget into the next Parliament.

Although he was disparaging of UKIP as a party (‘on 7th May you could go to bed with Nigel Farage, and wake up with Ed Miliband’), his speech otherwise directly pitched to those most likely to vote for them. EU immigration was, for Cameron, a red line in the forthcoming renegotiation.  Cameron would go into it seeking ‘controlled borders and an immigration system that puts the British people first’ and would not take no for an answer. The result of that renegotiation would be put to a vote in an in/out referendum – something that could only be achieved by voting Conservative. Further meat was offered by way of the abolition of the Human Rights Act, and the proposals to take those on the minimum wage out of tax and increase the higher rate threshold to £50,000.

The latter proposals come at some cost – but subsequent Tory briefing sets that this is proposed for the lifetime of the Parliament. With the income tax cuts, Cameron set out an ambition for 2020, rather than a promise for delivery in 2015. These changes will be paid for in full only towards the end of the next Parliament. However, these moves are hugely popular with Tory activists and clearly pitched at middle England. Politically, Cameron is hoping to be able to cash in much sooner.

One thing that was notable was the absence of any mention of the Liberal Democrats from the speech. They have essentially become an irrelevance – the Conservatives have claimed their ideas for their own, and are now training their guns on Labour and UKIP and as the real threats. This speech saw him draw the battle lines and set the narrative for the campaign ahead.

Reaction so far

John Cridland, CBI Director-General, said: “The CBI welcomes the Prime Minister’s commitment to a long-term economic plan for a successful Britain. We need more investment to create more jobs, so pledging to keep the UK corporate tax rate the most competitive in the G20 will send out a clear positive signal to businesses.”

John Longworth, British Chambers of Commerce: “The continued commitment to balancing the books is absolutely right, as are the income tax cuts for promoting work, enterprise and aspiration. Overall, this was a speech that stressed the importance of the economy and didn’t duck the scale of the challenges we face.”

Nick Robinson, BBC: “The speech was highly personal. The prime minister was almost saying: “You may not like me or my party but you have a simple choice between me and Ed Miliband. The Conservatives think this is a winning message.”

Phillip Collins, Writer, The Times: “As a piece of political writing, that was the best speech Cameron has done. Clear, well written and cleverly constructed.”

The announcements

40p tax rate: The Prime Minister announced that the threshold for the 40p income tax rate would be raised by a Conservative Government to £50,000 from £40,000. It is understood that this will not be implemented until later in the next parliament after the deficit is cleared costing a reported £5.5bn per annum.

Personal allowance: A future Conservative hour will raise the personal allowance for income tax to £12,500 from £10,500. This will take one million more people out of income tax, giving a tax cut to 30 million people, resulting in those on the NMW wage paying no income tax at all.

NHS: The Prime Minister promised to protect the NHS budget. Speaking passionately, he attacked Labour, saying: “How dare they suggest that I would ever put this at risk for other people’s children? How dare they frighten those who rely on the NHS.”

Human Rights: Cameron promised the abolition of the Human Rights Act, and the introduction of a new British Bill of Rights. It is unclear whether the UK will remain in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Immigration: As part of negotiations over Europe, the Prime Minister promised reform on the free movement of people. He asked the conference to judge him on his record in Europe, arguing: “Around that table in Brussels they know that I say what I mean and I mean what I say”.

Housing: Reiterating an announcement made earlier in the week, Cameron pledged “starter homes” with 100,000 new homes reserved for first time buyers under 40 which would be at least 20% cheaper than normal.

Corporation tax: The Prime Minister confirmed that under a Conservative Government, the UK would always have the most competitive corporate taxes in the UK. Echoing the comments made by the Chancellor earlier in the week on tax avoidance, the Prime Minister said: “We have cut your taxes now you must pay what you owe”.

National Citizen Service: The scheme will be extended with a place guaranteed on NCS for every teenager in the country.

Zero hours contracts: Exclusive zero hours contracts will be scrapped as they “leave people unable to build lives for themselves”.

Constitutional reform: The Prime Minister made a “vow” to the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland that he would bring fairness to the constitution.

Foreign policy: The Prime Minister argued that we can’t opt out of fighting ISIL and “there is no walk on by option.” He committed the Government to taking the strongest action possible against Britons who travelled to Iraq or Syria to support ISIL.