Challenges daunting for UK, says Cameron

Thu, Oct 11, 2012, 01:00

BRITISH PRIME minister David Cameron has warned that the United Kingdom faces “daunting” challenges and can no longer take it for granted that it will remain a major global economic power.

In an often sombre speech to the Conservative Party conference, Mr Cameron sought to lay out the scale of the problems while defending the actions of the Conservative-Liberal Democrats coalition.

The UK “is on the right track” for recovery, he said, but it faced competition from newly emerging economies, that “are lean, fit, obsessed with enterprise”, and invest heavily in education and infrastructure.

Countries that are “on the slide”, he said, are sclerotic, over-regulated, and they spend money on unaffordable welfare systems, huge pension bills and unreformed public services.

“I am not going to stand here as prime minister and allow this country to join the slide,” he said, noting that aspiration is the engine of progress and that countries rise when they allow their people to rise.

The Tory leader, faced with charges that his is the party of privilege, said “line one, rule one” of being a Conservative “is that it’s not where you’ve come from that counts, it’s where you’re going. We’ve been led by the daughter of a grocer, the son of a music-hall performer, by a Jew when Jews were marginalised, by a woman when women were sidelined. We don’t look at the label on the tin; we look at what’s in it”.

His speech helped to ease the fear of delegates about the party’s fortunes, following weeks of blunders – notably the extraordinary collapse of the multibillion pound London-Glasgow rail-line franchise.

Appealing to “the doers, the risk-takers”, Mr Cameron said the Tories are called the party of the better off, but it is, he claimed, the party of the want-to-be-better off.

Mr Cameron strategically sought to use the speech to argue that Tory values are “not divisive”, believing that Labour leader Ed Miliband can be painted as such ahead of the 2015 election. He repeatedly focused on Labour’s attacks upon his background and family wealth, and turned the argument back on its leader by saying he was “not here to defend privilege, but to spread it”.

He defended reforms in health, education and welfare and said they would be pushed further. He believes, despite Labour’s objections, that welfare cuts and new independent schools are popular with voters.

Too often, he said, the Tory party has failed to show “it has a heart”, leaving others free “to twist our ideas and distort who we are: the cartoon Conservatives who don’t care”. Despite the discomfort among grassroots with part of his agenda, his mission “from day one” has been to show that the Conservative Party is for everyone: “north, or south, black or white, straight or gay”.

Concerned at the portrayal of spending cuts and reforms, he said the Conservatives had to show they were necessary and “compassionate, too”. Putting the unemployed back to work – with a £14,000 (€17,300) investment per head in training, if necessary – “is the only real route out of poverty”, while a disciplined, rigorous education offers children the best start.

Existing welfare rules are not working, he said: £90 billion a year is spent on benefits to working-age people, not those on pensions – one in every eight pounds spent by the treasury.

Now, he said, those unemployed will have to sign a contract “to seek work and take work, or you will lose your benefit”, while under-25s will not automatically have a right to housing benefit.

“If hard-working young people have to live at home while they work and save, why should it be any different for those who don’t,” he said, to loud cheers from delegates.

Cameron clothes Tory line in language of aspiration: page 14