THERE are 747,000 sound reasons why this has been a landmark week for the Tories – David Cameron’s ambitious commitment to park his tanks on traditional Labour territory and “abolish youth unemployment” by the end of the decade thanks to his “earn or learn” revolution.
However there is just one obstacle to the Prime Minister’s bold commitment to end the “something for nothing” welfare dependency that has proved so costly to the national finances – Ukip.
For, while this speech starkly set out the clear differences between the Conservative’s tax-cutting aspiration agenda and Labour’s backward-looking, tax-raising politics of envy, it will only be judged to be a success if the Tories do go on and win the next election.
It will not be easy. The United Kingdom Independence Party, and its “cheeky chappy” leader Nigel Farage, can no longer be dismissed after topping the European elections, securing the defections of Tory MPs and winning the support of another wealthy Tory donor who gave £1m to Ukip yesterday.
Having reiterated that the Conservatives are the only party which can deliver a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, Mr Cameron alluded to the nightmare scenario of Ukip voters going to bed with Mr Farage on May 7 and waking up with Ed Miliband in Downing Street.
The sooner Eurosceptics recognise this, the better. For, after all, the very people embracing Ukip locally are the very people who should be enthusing about the boldness of Mr Cameron’s invigorating conference speech.
For once, this was not a leader shackled by coalition government; this was a confident and assertive leader who wants to reward endeavour and enterprise with lower taxes as the age of austerity draws to a close. Given the poverty of ambition at the Labour conference when Mr Miliband forgot the deficit and his shadow ministers failed to grasp the importance of early years education to ending poverty, Mr Cameron deserves the chance to implement the changes that he set out with such vision and passion.
Youth unemployment goes to the heart of this. It has been a national scandal for too long and reached record levels under the last Labour government before falling to 747,000 last month.
However Mr Cameron is right: one youngster out of work is one too many and it is simply no longer acceptable for youths to leave school with inadequate qualifications and sign up for a lifetime of welfare handouts.
Of course, there will be a minority who will accuse the Tories of draconianism and penalising the poorest members of society, but these criticisms need to be placed in context on three counts.
First, it is up to families – particularly those from traditional areas of deprivation – to make sure that their children do not fritter away the world-class education which can now be taken for granted. Mr Cameron put it like this: “In a Britain that everyone is proud to call home, you wouldn’t be able to tell a child’s GCSEs by their postcode or what their parents do. There must be a great education for every child.” The time for excuses is over.
Second, it is the duty of government to ensure that the economy can provide sufficient jobs and opportunities for those youngsters who do not go to university. The promised three million apprenticeships is a statement of intent that should be applauded. “We will say to those 21 and under: no longer will you have the option of leaving school and going straight into a life on benefits. You must earn or learn,” declared the PM.
Third, there are still youngsters who need to be incentivised to work – and the Tory election manifesto will build on the 1.8m jobs that have been created since 2010. The welfare cap will be lowered; one billion low-paid workers will be exempt from income tax when the threshold is raised to £12,500 and people will only have their income taxed at the higher rate of 40 per cent if they earn more than £50,000. “Let’s say it loudly and proud... with Britain getting off welfare and back to work... the real party of compassion and social justice today is here in this hall – the Conservative Party,” said the Prime Minister as he seized the political and economic initiative.
Though Mr Cameron was at his most emotional when he spoke about the National Health Service and Labour’s lies as he recalled the care shown by those who treated his late son Ivan, this speech gave hope to Conservatives critical of the PM’s leadership. It went a long way to make them proud of Tory values.
The PM was able to prove that prosperity and austerity are interwined – Britons will only be better off, and the budget deficit eradicated, if the public sector is kept in check and young people become wage-earners.
The late Margaret Thatcher would have approved when David Cameron declared: “A Britain that everyone is proud to call home is a Britain where hard work is really rewarded. Not a free-for-all, but a chance for all; the chance of a job, a home, a good start in life whoever you are, wherever you are from.”
The challenge facing all Conservatives is making sure that Mr Cameron gets a chance to deliver this dream for the 747,000 young people left on the economic scrapheap. It will not happen, however, unless the Tories can overcome the one factor that has become all-consuming – the very breakdown of trust which has played into the hands of the United Kingdom Independence Party.