The Prime Minister began his speech in Birmingham last week with a supreme understatement: "I can't tell you all is well". The optimist who used to rally his party and the country with "let sunshine win the day" now points to stormier clouds on the horizon, a dark hour of reckoning where Britain will either "sink or swim". David Cameron said his government's answer to the big challenges Britain faces was "aspiration for all" or (at least according to the Daily Telegraph's banner headline the day after the speech): "privilege for all". The incredulity of "privilege for all" will have smarter members of Mr Cameron's entourage nervous. But a debate as to which party truly stands for aspiration is one that Labour very much welcomes.
We know David Cameron is a politician who is more than capable of making a half-decent speech. Last week he certainly needed to. Questions about his leadership re-surfaced in light of more terrible news on the British economy from the IMF; there were reports about widespread unhappiness inside the cabinet about the prime minister's failure to take action against Andrew Mitchell; serious questions were raised about the government's basic lack of competence in light of the rail franchise blunder, the GCSE fiasco and never-ending 'omnishambles' that was the Budget; and all of that was before the over-shadowing impact of 'Boris-mania'.
He's right that Britain faces big challenges. And governing isn't perhaps as easy as our 'chillaxing' prime minister used to think it was. But what Mr Cameron finds impossible to admit is that his task has been made harder by the choices he has made.
Britain is in the longest double-dip recession since the Second World War. Borrowing is up 22% so far this year. That's £802 more every second, or to be precise £2,405,592 over the 50 minute duration of Mr Cameron's speech.
But all of this only partly explains why Mr Cameron was so defensive last week. He also knows that Ed Miliband has planted Labour's flag firmly in the centre ground with his 'One Nation' appeal. Despite unconvincing assurances in his Sunday Telegraph interview last week that Cameron was "not deserting the centre ground", Conservative conference was dominated by talk (if no action) on Europe; hugging hoodies has given way to yet unclear ways of bashing burglars; and less protection for employees in the workplace was another major theme.
His decision to defend his tax cut for the wealthiest, at a time when millions of families with children are losing an average of £511 this year after taking all tax and benefit changes into account, sends out a signal of division, not unity. The Prime Minister is quite right to say that the £40,000 tax cut for 8,000 millionaires is allowing them to keep more money, but the Government is choosing to pay for it with a tax rise for four million pensioners. Isn't that their money too?
Talk of "aspiration" is hollow when in reality the education budget has seen the biggest cut since the 1950s, tuition fees have been trebled to £9,000 and support for young people to stay on at college has gone with the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance.
Appeals to "strivers" - an echo of Ed Miliband's "grafters" - means little to squeezed families who are seeing their cost of living rise while wages stagnate. David Cameron was right to say that work is the best route out of poverty. But the government is cutting people's work incentives, especially tax credit cuts, meaning many people are finding themselves better off on benefits than in a job. Add to that, a million young people are out of work, with the biggest increases in long-term youth unemployment happening as far away as the south west and north east of England.
Equally, the prime minister spoke about supporting people who want to get out to work, but his cuts to childcare support risks making it harder for parents to do just that. The Early Intervention Grant budget, which helps fund Sure Start, has been cut by £1.4 billion. This means that the amount of provision on offer has reduced across the country and 16 Sure Start centres have already closed outright. If you really believe in aspiration, you have to will the means to make it real.
David Cameron knows that the only way he can maintain the pretence of centre-ground politics is to rather desperately caricature Ed Miliband's One Nation vision as "left wing". But the fact is there is nothing particularly left-wing about making sure that young people have the skills businesses need, or stopping casino banks exploiting small businesses, or protecting older people from rip-off pension charges - all central to the polcies outlined by Labour at our conference.
We have a prime minister who promised change but whose entire conference speech seemed to be premised on the idea that things have got worse on his watch and whose policies undermine his ability to claim that he can govern in the interests of the whole country. Every child deserves to go to a good school - that's why Labour introduced the system of academies that Mr Cameron likes so much - but we can't all go to Eton. To give the impression that you can is just not credible.
But Labour believes there can and must be aspiration for all. Indeed, it was two years ago that Ed Miliband first talked about how a whole generation were being locked out of opportunities and how the Government risked ending "the promise of Britain", whereby life chances are better for the next generation than they were for the last.
It was Ed Miliband who set out in his conference speech what a changed One Nation, centre-ground Labour party would offer to deal with many of the big challenges Britain faces in the future - sorting out the banks, stopping the energy company rip-off's, reforming the education system so that everyone can fulfil their potential. Our vision was for country where everyone in our society can not only aspire but can also achieve. David Cameron was forced to respond to Ed Miliband's lead last week. But for all the Prime Minister's talk of aspiration, the truth is his record and his policies just don't stand up to scrutiny.
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