David Cameron ignores Farage threat to take on 'Red Ed'
Having lurched to the right recently, PM reasserts his credentials as a 'One Nation' Conservative
DAVID CAMERON today hinted that under-25s could lose housing benefits enabling them to rent their own homes if they don't take training, education or a job.
The idea was floated by the PM in 2012 but rejected by Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems. It is being reviewed by Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, as part of the provision for 16-25 year olds and Cameron clearly wants it in the next Tory election manifesto.
Giving his keynote speech to the Conservative conference in Manchester, he said there were more than 1 million so-called NEETS - not in education, employment or training. "It is still possible to leave school, sign on, find a flat, start claiming housing benefit and opt for a life on benefits," he said. "It's time for bold action here. We should ask, as we write our next manifesto, if that option should really exist at all."
Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, who was praised by Cameron in his speech as "a cross between Mr Chips and the Duracell bunny", confirmed it was being looked at. He said on Radio 4's World at One: "It should not become the way of life that this has become."
The rest of Cameron's speech came as a surprise to political commentators, who had expected him to make a direct appeal to the Tories who are deserting the Conservatives in droves for Ukip.
But instead of trying to compete with Ukip on the right of British politics, Cameron restaked his claim to the centre ground. In doing so, he defied those in his own party calling for a swing to the right to answer the appeal of Nigel Farage's party
It suggests the Tory Party high command believes 'Red Ed' Miliband has deserted the centre ground with his promse to the Labour party conference of socialist policies harking back to the 1970s and beyond.
In a largely sombre speech, the Prime Minister did not even mention Ukip. Instead, he became the first Conservative leader in living memory to call for a special ovation for social workers, so often the butt of Tory attacks in the past.
Tony Blair's former political Svengali, Lord Mandelson, warned Ed Miliband last week that he could only win the next general election by keeping to the centre ground.
Miliband may have ignored him, but Cameron, who won the leadership of the Tory party as the modernising "heir to Blair", has heeded Mandelson's advice. Having appeared to be lurching to the right in recent months, Cameron reasserted his credentials as a 'One Nation' Conservative.
In doing so, Cameron has taken a calculated risk of alienating those Tories who want him to match the hard-right offer by Ukip. Worse – from their point of view - he was applauded by Lord Heseltine, the former Cabinet minister who brought Margaret Thatcher down.
Within minutes of Cameron's conclusion, Hezza said on BBC TV's Daily Politics: "This was a One Nation speech… across the board it was an appeal to the middle ground. He is a One Nation Conservative. Of course, he hasn't finished the job. My own view is that is the right appeal, soberly presented.
Did he pander to the extreme right? No."
Earlier, Heseltine destroyed the uneasy ceasefire between top Tories and Ukip at Manchester by saying that Ukip was "a racist party". No other senior Tory has said that in recent months, as the Cameron camp has sought to persuade Ukip deserters to come back into the fold.
Heseltine reinforced his point by tweeting: "It's time the Conservative Party spoke out against the racialised politics of Ukip. As a nation we cannot shut ourselves away."
Cameron's speech was ultra-light on policy: he used to mainly to bash "Red Ed and his Blue Peter economics" , and to road-test the slogan for the Tory campaign for the general election in 18 months: "Let us finish the job." He left the stage to Fleetwood Mac's Don't Stop to reinforce the message.
Gaby Hinsliff, the Times columnist, tweeted: "It wasn't a speech so much as a long, furious, open letter to Ed Miliband. When the man worrying much of the hall is Farage."
But Cameron's strategy is to focus on providing an alternative to Miliband's new direction- what the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson called in a post-speech tweet “a straight red/blue fight”. That is what could now worry the former Blairites who are still not reconciled to Ed's leadership. ·