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Cameron bets on tax cuts, but Ukip bandwagon threatens Tory election chances

Cameron bets on tax cuts, but Ukip bandwagon threatens Tory election chances

🕔01.Oct 2014

Chamberlain Files chief blogger Paul Dale sits in on David Cameron’s big speech to the Conservative conference and sums up the Tories’ week in Birmingham.

The Conservative party conference ended pretty much where it began.

On the surface, a triumphal rallying call to arms for next year’s General Election.

But behind the scenes lay the unsettling spectre of Nigel Farage and Ukip.

While they were in Birmingham the Tories could never quite avoid glancing nervously over their shoulders and asking ‘who’s going to jump ship next?’

The week began with the defection to Ukip of Mark Reckless, Conservative MP for Rochester and Strood. That prompted Tory chairman Grant Shapps to condemn Mr Reckless from the podium as a traitor and someone who had “lied and lied and lied again”.

David Cameron, touring conference parties on the Tuesday night, reportedly stated that Mr Reckless ought to have “got off his fat arse” and worked harder for the Conservative cause.

The word from party sources is that the Tories will throw the kitchen sink at the forthcoming by-election and will “fight dirty” to retain Rochester and Strood if needs be.

While the Prime Minister was hitting out, Ukip announced two new converts.

Richard Barnes, a former deputy mayor of London who was once a close ally of Boris Johnson, and William Cash, the son of Euroscpetic Sir William ‘Bill’ Cash.

It was also confirmed that a Conservative Party donor is switching his support to Ukip. Businessman Arron Banks presented a cheque for £100,000 to Ukip leader Nigel Farage and said: “I’ve supported the Conservatives for a number of years but have come to the realisation that only Ukip supports my views.”

Meanwhile, as the whips toured the conference venue in an attempt to stiffen a few spines, the usual suspects from the Tory right were obliged to declare their undying loyalty to the party, or it would be assumed that they were also en-route to Ukip.

Chris Kelly, the MP for Dudley South, who announced that he would not stand again at the 2015 General Election, issued a statement to the effect that he was “definitely not” joining Ukip.

Conservatives in Kettering denied speculation that MP Philip Hollobone is about to join Ukip. Hollobone has been the subject of persistent rumours and has been backed with odds of 2/1 to be the next MP to join UKIP, according to bookmakers Ladbrokes – making him the favourite.

And on the final morning of the conference, as the faithful queued to get into the ICC to hear the Prime Minister’s speech, Ukip members were openly touting for recruits.

David Cameron’s address was an interesting mix of policy pronouncements, attacks on Ed Miliband and Ed Balls and self-deprecation – ‘I once forgot I’d left my daughter in the pub, but how can you forget about the deficit?’ – delivered safely from behind a lectern.

He even risked an impression of William Hague, complete with nasal cod-Yorkshire accent.

There was plenty of ‘I love my country’ and wrapping himself in the Union Flag. The 91-year-old war hero who Cameron took to the D-Day commemorations was in the balcony to receive the conference’s applause. That led to a link to today’s armed forces fighting terror in the Middle East. The Prime Minister was in prime ministerial mode.

The low tax policies that Cameron hopes will win him the election were trotted out. The earnings threshold at which income tax becomes payable will rise from £10,500 to £12,500, taking a million low-paid earners out of tax altogether. The threshold for the 40p tax rate will rise from £40,000 to £50,000.

However, as the Prime Minister pointed out, tax cuts can only be afforded if the economy is sound. The Conservatives plan to eradicate the deficit and cut public spending by £25 billion in the first two years of the next parliament. This sounds like a lot of money but is in fact only three per cent of the total Government spend on public services.

Most of the key speakers at the conference took care to attack Ukip. The line is that Ukip can never win enough seats to form a government, a vote for Farage is a vote for Labour, and in any case the Conservatives are the only party offering a referendum on Britain’s future in Europe.

Criticism of Ukip attracted loud cheers, but not everyone joined in the applause. From my position high up on the top tier of seats in Symphony Hall, where the Tory awkward squad likes to gather, there were clearly some Conservatives who did not support the anti-Ukip stance.

These people like the cut of Farage’s jib. They want out of Europe and they want immigration to be halted, not just cut back. David Cameron’s liberal instincts are not to their liking.

It’s not just the Conservatives facing up to the Ukip insurgency. Labour must be rather nervous at the prospect of a by-election on October 9 in the Lancashire constituency of Heywood and Middleton following the death of MP Jim Dobbin.

But as the Tory tribe makes its way home from Birmingham there must be a growing realisation that, despite the rapidly improving economy and the promise of tax cuts to come, a combination of Europe and parliamentary boundaries that are favourable to Labour may see Ed Miliband home come next May.

The opinion polls continue to give Labour a lead of about four to six points, which if repeated uniformly across the country would put paid to Mr Cameron’s hopes of victory. He is banking on a narrowing of the gap as the election approaches, but time is fast running out.

It is not so much a case of going home and preparing for government, more going home and preparing for Ukip.

Main policy pledges from the Conservatives:

Benefits

George Osborne said he would make £25 billion of public spending cuts over the first two years of the next parliament, including reducing the welfare budget by £12 billion. Benefits for working people would be frozen for two years.

In addition, people under 21 would be banned from claiming housing benefit and jobseekers’ allowance. They would instead have access to a “youth allowance” for which they would be compelled to work for after six months.

The benefit cap would also be lowered from £26,000 to £23,000, mainly affecting large families.

Mr Osborne said the UK’s £100 billion welfare bill was “not sustainable for any nation”.

The freeze will come into effect in 2016 if the Conservatives win the General Election. It would apply to Jobseeker’s Allowance, Universal Credit, child benefit, tax credits, housing benefits, and part of the Employment Support Allowance. Pensioner benefits, the carer’s allowance, maternity pay and disability handouts are not included in the freeze.

The benefits freeze was condemned by Labour as an attack on the “working poor”.

Welfare

Benefit claimants will be handed welfare payments through prepaid cards, under plans announced by Iain Duncan Smith.

The Work and Pensions Secretary used his conference speech to announce a pilot programme for the cards, which he claimed would help protect the children of drug users from the “destructive habits” of their parents.

Mr Duncan Smith vowed to “accelerate the delivery” of the delayed Universal Credit welfare reform programme, confirming it has been signed off by Whitehall officials.

Tax

The earnings threshold at which tax becomes payable would be increased from £10,500 to £12,500. The 40p tax rate would apply to earnings over £50,000 rather than £40,000 at the moment.

Pension fund cash pots will no longer be subject to 55 per cent tax upon death.

Health

Spending on the NHS will be ring-fenced and not cut.

GP surgeries will open 12 hours a day, seven days a week by 2020. The Prime Minister said the policy would be part of a new contract for doctors.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt confirmed that 5,000 more GPs would receive training and said a future Conservative government would “have no greater priority than to protect and invest in our NHS.”

He promised to give patients access to their medical records online by next April and also warned Labour against claiming to be the party of the NHS.

Terror

Theresa May pledged that a future Conservative government would seek new powers to ban extremist groups and prevent radical preachers from propagating radicalism.

The Home Secretary said that banning orders and “extreme disruption” orders would feature in the party’s 2015 election manifesto. And she confirmed that the party would introduce powers to outlaw groups that are seen to be encouraging violence or extremism, but who currently stop short of the current threshold for criminalisation.

Housing

100,000 new starter homes for families with children.

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