British PM's last-ditch bid for votes

Facing a hotly contested general election next May, British Prime Minister David Cameron is planning to use a keynote speech at the annual conference of his ruling Conservative Party later today to plead with the electorate to entrust him with five more years.

Yet the event, the last set-piece speech in the British political calendar before the ballots, is unlikely to be easy for Mr Cameron. His party, hit by a sex scandal and the recent defection of two MPs, is demoralised and divided.

Opinion polls indicate that it stands little chance of re-election.

The resignation of Mr Brooks Newmark, a junior minister, over revelations that he sent an explicit photograph of himself over the Internet is embarrassing, but of no political consequence.

Mr Newmark fell victim to an entrapment campaign by a left-wing newspaper, which set up a fake Twitter account claiming to belong to a youthful female admirer.

But the defections of two Conservative MPs to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which wants Britain to withdraw from the European Union (EU), are potentially disastrous.

For not only do these defections prompt by-elections which the government is likely to lose, they also confirm predictions that UKIP will eat into the Conservatives' core voting base at the general election, thereby paving the way for the opposition Labour to return to power.

Adding to the problem, a former Conservative deputy mayor of London also joined UKIP yesterday.

Today, Mr Cameron will unveil a series of measures calculated to revive his party's electoral fortunes.

Chief among these will be the allocation of an extra £100 million (S$207 million) for health spending with the aim of ensuring that, by the end of this decade, all state-funded family doctors' practices and polyclinics will be kept open seven days a week.

Mr Cameron will also promise to build 100,000 new flats, to be offered at a 20 per cent discount on market rates, exclusively to young first-time buyers.

These flats, explained the prime minister, "can't be bought by foreigners, they can't be bought by buy-to-let landlords, and they can't be flipped around in a quick sale".

And, to consolidate the feel-good factor, Mr Cameron will promise that his government will abolish a hated tax imposed on people inheriting unused pension funds from family members, as well as a freeze on any increase in welfare benefits.

Both moves are aimed squarely at the Conservatives' middle-class constituency, which is increasingly resentful of the tax burden and of government welfare expenditure.

Said Mr Jonathan Isaby of the Taxpayers' Alliance, a pressure group urging lower government spending: "Freezing benefits is a necessary step towards restoring discipline to our public finances and ensuring that taxpayers get a fair deal from the welfare system."

But Mr Cameron will face a much tougher challenge in his speech today when it comes to dealing with Britain's relations with Europe.

His Conservative backbenchers are torn between those who believe in Britain's continued membership in the EU and those no longer satisfied with Mr Cameron's longstanding promise that, should he win another term next May, he will renegotiate Britain's EU membership; they want Britain out of the union altogether.

The British leader will steer a middle course by promising tough negotiation with the EU and by vowing that, should Britain not get a "new membership deal", he will not hesitate to recommend to the electorate a withdrawal from Europe.

This may just be enough to keep his party together, but is unlikely to impress the wider electorate or deflate the growing support which UKIP now enjoys.

The latest opinion polls indicate that the Conservatives are trailing Labour by a full 5 percentage points, more than enough to give Labour a working parliamentary majority next May.

But Mr Cameron can draw comfort from Labour leader Ed Miliband's speech to his own annual party conference last week, which was widely dismissed as poorly constructed and clumsily delivered.

These are not mistakes that Mr Cameron will want to repeat.

This article was first published on October 01, 2014.
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