In Depth

David Cameron's big tax pledge: was he too clever by half?

Stealing Lib Dem tax policy may have been a mistake: Cameron needs Clegg to win back 'switchers'

Oh to have had a hidden microphone in Nick Clegg’s office when David Cameron came out with his Grand Theft Tax Policy at Birmingham yesterday.

The promise to raise the starting rate of tax to £12,500 to help the lower paid – if the Tories win the next election - was a breath-taking act of political larceny: Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander leapt out to brand the pledge a "shameless attempt to copy Liberal Democrat tax policy".

The Tories had always been reluctant converts to the policy of raising the bottom-end tax threshold and, said Alexander, the coalition government had only been able to deliver more generous thresholds in this Parliament because of the "determination and commitment" of the Lib Dems.

Kleptomania is a personality trait for most politicians. When a party comes up with a new policy it’s likely to be trashed or stolen if it looks to be a hit with the voters. Ed Miliband is equally guilty, having shamelessly dragged the Lib Dems’ £2 million mansion tax into Labour’s policy portfolio.

But what was good politics for Miliband might not make as much sense for David Cameron. Indeed, it could be argued that Cameron was too clever by half in robbing Nick Clegg of what might have been a juicy part of his speech to the Lib Dems’ conference in Glasgow next week.

Why? Because Tory hopes of victory in May 2015 depend not only on winning back defectors to Ukip - they also need Clegg to perform a miracle and persuade Lib Dem “switchers” to return to the fold.

These are the people who voted for the Lib Dems at the 2010 general election but, horrified at their party teaming up with the Tories (and especially reneging on a promise not to raise students’ fees), have been telling opinion pollsters ever since that they will vote Labour next May.

There are about 1.5 million of them - and they are so important to Labour's hopes of victory that Mike Smithson of Political Betting has dubbed them "Miliband's crutch".

Intriguingly, polling by Lord Ashcroft earlier this year discovered that many of these "switchers" have become more ardent Labour fans than some of the party’s own longer-term supporters: the Lib Dem defectors feature strongly among the minority who actually rate Miliband as a good potential PM.

In short, Cameron needs a “game-changer” if the Tories are to leap-frog Labour in the opinion polls – but he also needs Nick Clegg to enjoy one as well.

A quick look at the most recent polling shows what a task both men face. 

A YouGov poll conducted on the eve of Cameron’s keynote speech – but after the news had broken of MP Mark Reckless’s defection to Ukip and the sexting scandal involving Brooks Newmark - has Labour seven points ahead of the Conservatives (38 to 31 per cent) with Ukip on 15 per cent and the Lib Dems on seven per cent.

These figures are in line with the polling average for the past month used by Electoral Calculus for its projections. It shows: Lab 36, Con 30, Ukip 15, Lib Dems 8 – figures that translate into a Labour overall majority of 42 as the predicted outcome of the 2015 election.

The key change from 2010 is of course the Ukip share of the vote – up from three per cent to 15 per cent, which means the Tories are currently running six to seven per cent below where they were in 2010.  Put bluntly, Cameron will lose next year unless he can make massive inroads into the Ukip vote. 

But even if Ukip disappeared from the face of British politics that would not be enough to give to keep Cameron in Downing Street because of the damage inflicted on the Lib Dems by their decision to throw in their lot with the Tories. 

In the short term, the question now is whether Cameron’s conference speech, with its promise of tax cuts (one day) and extra NHS funding, will be enough to make a difference. His performance drew many rave reviews and had The Observer’s political editor Toby Helm saying: “If this speech doesn't shift polls a bit, difficult to know what will.”

We have yet to see a post-speech poll – though the thinktank Demos has analysed 25,000 tweets sent during and after the PM’s spell at the podium. And it’s not encouraging for the Tories: there were ten negative posts for every positive one, most of them criticisng Cameron’s new policies and complaining about the impact of austerity cuts. Similar research the previous week showed Ed Miliband doing much better: only four negative tweets for every positive one.

Carl Miller, social media expert at Demos, commenting on the reaction to Cameron’s speech, said: “People took to Twitter to praise the delivery and tone of what many felt was one of Cameron’s best speeches – but were not sold on the content.

“Some of the most re-tweeted comments were particularly hostile of tax ‘giveaways’ for some of the richest in society.”

Whatever the opinion polls tell us in the coming days, the first real test of whether any party leader has produced a game-changing conference speech will come on 9 October with the by-elections in Clacton and Heywood and Middleton. 

If Cameron and Clegg prove to have failed, then the Boris Johnson/Theresa May beauty contest at the Birmingham conference will look like a dress rehearsal for a Tory leadership contest in the aftermath of a Cameron defeat next May.

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