Issues & Ideas | 3rd October 2014

David Cameron's conference speech by the numbers

David Cameron’s conference speech received a flood of positive front pages in yesterday’s papers. […]

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David Cameron’s conference speech received a flood of positive front pages in yesterday’s papers. But behind the headlines, what were the numbers influencing the speech?

Back to the Future?

First, it was overwhelmingly a speech about the future rather than the past, or the government’s record. It was long on pledges for the next parliament, with little attention paid to the last four years.

“Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” instructed Fleetwood Mac through the speakers, as the Prime Minister, Clinton-inspired, walked from the stage. It is not hard to see why looking ahead was the focus. ComRes polling for ITV News shows that the only aspect of the Government’s record to have more people say it is “good for Britain” than “bad for Britain” is gay marriage (noticeably absent from the speech), suggesting the recent past may not be the Conservatives’ strongest suit.

Mr Cameron also knows that, as the incumbent, he will need the public to feel that things are going in the right direction ahead of next May’s election if he is to come out on top. Currently, more people expect their personal finances to get worse (28 per cent) than to improve (21 per cent) over the next twelve months. Nearly three quarters (71 per cent) expect the cost of everyday items to get worse.

The Prime Minister’s focus on the future was very much an attempt to address these sentiments and encourage a sense of optimism as the election approaches.

Healthcare – tackling a Conservative demon?

Mr Cameron also made significant moves on the NHS. In many respects, his offer was a clever tactical buttress, erected to protect against a traditional Labour strength. It is hard to overestimate how much more Labour’s mutedly received proposal for £2.5 billion of new NHS spending amounts to compared to the Conservatives more modest figure of “millions”. To get some idea of the difference, a million seconds lasts about 12 days, while a billion seconds is the equivalent of 31 years. In the public mind however, the difference often boils down to a single letter and Mr Cameron knows that the average voter does not make this distinction.

It is hard to overestimate the difference between Labour’s £2.5 billion commitment to the NHS and the Conservatives’ “millions”.

The challenges the Conservatives face on the NHS are great. As the graph above shows, 57% of Britons think that their management of it over the past four years has been “bad for Britain” – worse than any other part of their record other than handling immigration. Labour leads on the issue by a solid, if undramatic, nine points.

The purpose of Mr Cameron’s promise appears not to be to overturn this, but to blunt Labour’s attacks on the issue over the coming months. The strategic deftness presently appears to be the timing – had the announcement be made by itself, it would risk moving the debate onto “Labour’s turf”. By proposing it concurrently with a series of ostensibly major tax cuts, he appears to have been able to get out the Conservative line on the NHS, while keeping the media narrative firmly on “home ground”.

Personal Tax Allowance

The central “rabbit in the hat” was the series of proposed tax cuts. The proposal to raise the personal tax allowance is very much a counter-attack. The increases in the allowance over the past four years have been popular and received with little opposition.

However, ComRes polling in the first half of this year, suggested that more of the public thought it was an achievement for which the Liberal Democrats were responsible, not the Conservatives. By pledging a bold raise in the allowance in the next Parliament, there have been suggestions that it will enable the Conservatives to take greater credit for the rises already made.

Raising the upper income tax threshold

Proposing major tax cuts is not a risk-free endeavour either. The last time the Conservatives did so – the reduction in the 50p rate of tax – it monumentally backfired, leading to the 2012 Budget gaining its “Omnishambles” sobriquet and a two-year collapse in the party’s poll ratings.

While the public tends to think individuals on all incomes pay too much tax (although they don’t much like cuts to public services either), many Britons are keen to cry-foul of perceived unfairness. The key problem with the 2012 proposals was it appeared to much of the public that the richest were receiving a tax cut, while “ordinary” Britons were not, instead being slapped with pasty taxes and public service cuts. The key test of whether yesterday’s proposals receive a positive a reaction is whether Messrs Cameron and Osborne can convince a sceptical public that everyone will benefit from the changes, rather than just a few. Raising the 20% tax rate at the same time as raising the 40% rate suggests the Tories may have learnt their lesson.

A deficit deficit

Ed Balls was quick to point out that the Tories proposed tax cuts were unfunded. While this might be the case, it appears clear that the Conservatives seem now willing to spend their accumulated political capital for fiscal management. On the last count, their lead over the Labour on being the party most trusted to reduce the deficit was a mammoth 25 points, their highest for any issue. The Conservative leadership may well have decided that having this lead is worth little if it is stuck in the bank. It has not touched their own deficit in vote share behind Labour, so now may well be the time to spend some of the credibility built up over the past half-decade to try and make up the difference instead.

Should we expect a bounce?

Finally, a word of warning. There will certainly be numerous stories over the coming weeks suggesting that the Conservatives have seen a “bounce” following what is widely seen in Westminster as a successful speech. These should be treated very carefully. There were many stories last year pointing to one or two point rises in Labour’s vote share following the energy prize freeze which supposedly signified a “bounce”. In fact most of these were all changes within the margin of error, very similar to those seen in previous months. What had changed was the narrative around the polling: polls showing Labour increases were seized upon, those showing the party down slightly, left by the wayside. From September to December though, Labour’s average lead barely changed.

That’s not to say that the same will happen with the Conservatives this year. But political speeches tend to go unnoticed by most of the public. And with more than one million Youtube views, a widely shared and less than flattering spoof remix of “David Cameron’s Conference Rap” will almost certainly have been seen by more people than watched the speech in its entirety.

David Cameron may have fired the starting gun for the election, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. And, as with any marathon, victory becomes a physical impossibility if you are too far behind to catch up as you approach the finish line. The Conservatives will be mindful that there are only 215 days left to overtake Labour. To give some perspective on that, the gap between today and Election Day is the same as the gap between 1 March 2014 and today. Is that time enough?


Adam Ludlow is an analyst for ComRes, one of the nine active major British polling companies in our polling tracker.