Cameron speech: The reaction

From environmentalists to trade unions, the first reactions to David Cameron’s conference speech come in.

By Ian Dunt

The unions commented first, and they were angry. David Cameron’s attack on big government was heard loud and clear by general secretaries across the country, and they reacted exactly as you’d expect.

“Cameron pandered to the Thatcherite small state obsession at a time when anyone can see the need for more government intervention in the economy,” said Unite joint general secretary Derek Simpson. “At the height of the worst recession in decades Cameron said nothing about job creation, nothing about supporting our industries and nothing about reigning in his friends in the city who caused economic meltdown. The Tories are trying to fool the nation with Cameron playing the good cop and Osborne playing the bad cop. Cameron desperately tried to row back from the bleak picture painted by his shadow chancellor. No matter what he said the Tories will swing the axe at the public sector while making ordinary families work for longer and for less. “
The opposition leader attempted to illustrate Britain’s ‘broken society with the story of Fiona Pilkington, who committed suicide with her daughter after police failed to take her complaints of abuse against her family seriously. That didn’t go down well in some quarters. “David Cameron has shamefully tried to re-write history and shamelessly tried to make political capital out of the appalling tragedy of a mother and her daughter,” Unison’s general secretary Dave Prentis said. “Despite the rhetoric and his moral crusade, his speech showed that the Tories are still stuck in the Thatcher era.

“He failed to spell out what he means by getting rid of big government. Does small government, mean leaving vulnerable people unprotected? Does it mean getting rid of employment protection? Does it mean more privatisation? Of course people should take responsibility for their actions. But, we think the banks should be made to take responsibility for the economic crisis they have caused and pay back the money they owe the taxpayer. That was missing from Cameron’s speech.”
Environmentalists were unimpressed as well, with their issue gaining minimal space in a speech which touched upon a range of policy areas. It was all a far cry, Friends of the Earth noted, from when he began his stint as Tory leader.

“David Cameron re-built the Conservative party’s electoral prospects on a commitment to tackle climate change and go green by voting blue,” said the group’s head of climate change, Mike Childs. “That showed real leadership, but in his speech the environment barely featured in his vision for Britain. The Conservatives do not yet have the polices to rise to the challenge of tackling climate change – this close to the general election, they should have.

“It is a great disappointment that David Cameron’s speech today failed to show that protecting the environment and building a green economy would be a priority for a Conservative government.”

Power2010, which wants greater democracy in British politics, was unimpressed by the lack of substantive discussion of constitutional reform. “David Cameron recognised that we were in a political crisis and talked about building a ‘new politics’ – but offered no real ideas or plans for reform,” said Pam Giddy, the group’s director. “He does not grasp the depth of the crisis we are in or the sheer anger of people over the failure of our democratic institutions. He has today lost an opportunity to present himself as the reforming prime minister.”

Labour cast a sharp judgment on the speech, and Liam Byrne, chief secretary to the Treasury, carefully navigated the passage where Cameron spoke of the death of his son, Ivan. “This was an emotive but deceptive speech,” he said. “It concealed the judgement calls he has consistently got wrong and the real threat of what he would do.

“He attacked the recession but opposed every decision we have taken to accelerate the recovery. He feigned concern for the poor but made no mention of his tax giveaway of £200,000 to the wealthiest few. He said they were the party of the NHS but he would tear up the patient guarantee to see a cancer specialist within two weeks. He talked tough on crime but he would cut the equivalent of 3,500 police officers this year and weaken DNA evidence. This was a traditional Conservative speech: it was not a speech of change. The two faces of the Conservative party are increasingly on show.”

The Liberal Democrats criticised Cameron for insisting on cuts in the middle of a recession, saying it would prolong the pain for Britain. “They claim they can fix the country’s finances, but their plans are economically illiterate. Cutting spending now would plunge us back into recession,” said Nick Clegg’s chief of staff, Danny Alexander. “They claim to care about the poorest, but will only slash taxes for millionaires. They expect to have the keys to Downing Street handed to them, but at a time of crisis they have the wrong solutions and the wrong priorities.”

But bookies and gamblers must have liked something about the speech, because William Hill quickly put out odds of David Cameron remaining Tory leader for several more years. The company is offering odds of 11/10 that he is still leader in 2016. The odds on the Conservatives winning the next general election stand at 2/7, while a two term Tory government stands at 6/5. Three terms? The odds drop to 3/1.

But there is a slight cloud on the horizon. Boris Johnson’s euphorically received conference speech appears to have impressed the bookies, which have installed him as second favourite to replace Cameron as leader of the Conservatives. Boris is now 50/1 to become prime minister of Britain within the next ten years.

If that thought depresses Cameron, he might want to lend his ear to Caroline Simon of astrology website Blue Moon, who offered the Tory leader a reading for his birthday tomorrow. If politics goes wrong, Simon says, he should try his hand at manual labour. “You have mechanical ability and work well with your hands,” she said. “You could become adept at sculpture, pottery, carpentry, stained glass, or anything that involves doing and making things manually.” At least he has options.