The defection of Mark Reckless to UKIP hung gloomily over the opening of this year’s Conservative Party Conference with even the most ardent activist concerned that his departure, along with Douglas Carswell’s in August, could open the floodgates to disgruntled backbenchers moving into the Farage-fold. Such pessimism did not, however, persist and, with the benefit of hindsight, seem not a little undue.
In the wake of Carswell’s departure the Tory top-table seemed rattled, perhaps rightly so. Following his election as MP for Harwich (now Clacton) in 2005, Carswell quickly developed a reputation as an intellectual beacon for Conservative Eurosceptics, so much so that UKIP failed to field a candidate against him in 2010. A sharp libertarian bent and impressive negotiating skills set him apart from his colleagues and marked him out as a star for the future. It is little wonder that David Cameron et al fear a Douglas Carswell in UKIP purple, he has the potential to do great damage to them.
In comparison Mark Reckless cuts a far less impressive figure. Tellingly, he is perhaps best known for missing a vote on the 2010 Finance Bill having fallen into a drunken stupor on the Parliamentary terrace and as early as September 26 he publicly put his support behind David Cameron. Although Reckless’ departure was a sucker punch and took the wind out of the Tories’ collective sails, it also provided a rallying point and allowed party members and delegates to come out swinging. By Sunday evening Reckless was popularly dismissed as an “insurgent” and a liar who had mislead his Party. A siege mentality was forming and rallying around two simple messages, the first being: UKIP cannot deliver a referendum on European Union membership, the Conservatives will.
The second was directed not at UKIP, but at the Labour Party. Monday the 29th of September will be remembered as the first, and perhaps only, time the Chancellor of the Exchequer has invoked the work of Scottish writer Irvine Welsh. Invoking Mark Renton, lead protagonist of Welsh’s magnus opum Trainspotting, George Osborne urged voters to “choose jobs. Choose enterprise. Choose security. Choose prosperity, investment, fairness, freedom. Choose David Camerson, choose the Conservatives, choose the future!” Though his speech drew Welsh’s ire in a series of four letter strewn tweets, it acted as a fundamental affirmation of Conservative Party values and their willingness to talk tough on economic issues, something Labour’s conference singularly avoided.
It would have been of little surprise if David Cameron’s conference centre piece had served to unify these disparate themes, but it did not. Rather the Prime Minister was ambitious and looked to claim the political centre ground by reaching out to wavering voters from across Britain. His boldest pronouncements were on tax. He promised to increase the income tax threshold from £10,500 to £12,500 and to raise the 40p tax band from £41,900 to £50,000. These policies have broad appeal. The first will be seen by many as easing their personal constraints, while the latter is a sop to the aspirational. Though public sector spending will undoubtedly be squeezed by these measures, the popular zeitgeist in much of England, though clearly not Scotland or Wales, is that the state remains an engorged beast in need of refinement.
Cameron was quick to provide a caveat to his reforms: the NHS. Drawing upon the memory of the help his disabled son Ivan received through the NHS, the Prime Minister dismissed Labour’s claims that only it could protect the provision of universal health provision. It was a canny move. The NHS is one of the few areas in which Labour leads the Tories and it formed the centre piece of Ed Miliband’s address in Manchester. It would be churlish to deny Cameron’s emotionalism on this subject and it illustrated that opponents would be wise not to simply dismiss him either as a husky-hugging toff or bullying Flashman.
With a matter of months remaining until the next election the Conservative appear to be in the ascendancy. The Party, so often riddled with cliques and animosity, has developed a sense of tentative unity and David Cameron has risen to the challenge of projecting himself not only as a party leader, but as an authoritative statesman. Although still behind in the polls, Conservative activists can be heartened by their leader’s performance. In contrast, the Labour Party should be wary. Cameron’s promise to fundamentally alter Britain’s tax system will be greatly appealing to many voters and is a clear, identifiable statement of what the next Tory Government would stand for. The Labour Party has not yet achieved this and may well need to revise the unambitious ‘35% strategy,’ favoured by Ed Balls, if they are to do so.
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