Last year at conference Mr Cameron spoke about the UK offering leadership in fighting poverty, and leadership in fighting tyranny. This year he led with more domestic ambitions. His main overseas comment was that “by the end of 2014 all UK combat operations in Afghanistan will have come to an end”. Some of us welcome this change of emphasis, but want a speedier exit.
He gave a good speech about the challenge of getting the UK back to work and spreading propsperity much more widely. He seeks welfare reform, so that it is always worthwhile working. The system should give incentives to those who try, rather than rewards to those who do not, whilst looking after those who cannot work. He seeks school reform, so many more can have the advantage of a great education. And he seeks enterprise reform, so many more can and will set up businesss, and many more can help their business grow and create the orders and jobs we need. He wants to spread privilege, and is on the side of those who want to be better off.
When reviewing the achievements of the government he mentioned the veto on the Fiscal Treaty, the deportation of Abu Hamza, the Olympics and the Council Tax freeze.
All of that was well received by the audience. The question we need to ask is what policies will follow from this concentration on helping the strivers and emphasising the need to improve the UK’s ability to compete in the world?
I did not expect there to be policy initiatives in the Prime Minister’s speech. It was best that he set out the big arguments, and gave a sense of direction. We need to look elsewhere to see if there is going to be back up to the speech, if the whole government will now be fired up to deliver the vision.
The Chancellor made two announcements in his speech. His decision to set out a “generous new tax regime for shale gas” is welcome. It shows that he is now exercised by the dear energy and the looming energy gap this country faces. We will find out if he can change enough in UK energy policy to deliver the larger quantities of cheaper energy industry – and householders – need or whether the government remains locked in by renewable and emission control directives to dear and scarce energy. It think it is going to take more than a welcome tax break for shale, though that does help.I suspect we have to tell the EU we will not be implementing all their directives by 2015, if we want to keep the lights on at a price we can afford.
The Chancellor’s decision to grant a CGT tax break on shares an employee holds in a company, offered in return for waiving certain employment rights is more contentious. I doubt it will make a lot of difference. People investing in the company they work for can already secure CGT advantages. A general cut in CGT rate would be a much better stimulus to investment and enterprise, and would probably collect more revenue at the same time.
The Prime Minister clearly thinks the Gove reforms of education will be sufficient in themselves to spread the opportunity of an education as good as Eton to many more pupils. I fear that is optimistic. We have been discussing recently on this site other options to speed the progress of better education. It would be a good idea to allow for profit companies to operate, and to permit selection by academic ability as well as selection by the other currently approved criteria.
A lot rests on the huge welfare reform underway. I think the government needs to do more immediately to tackle the question of eligibility. We have talked here about Treasure Island syndrome, with many people able to come from overseas to enjoy welfare benefits and public services without contributing. Getting to grips with that would help create a greater sense of fairness, cut the bills and show all legally settled people here that the government is serious about welfare being for those in need, not a way of life. UK Ministers have sought to limit the right of EU migrants to come here to receive benefits, and now face a legal challenge from the EU over this fundamental point.