We meet at a time of national anxiety. In the eye of a financial storm. Our economy suffers from a crisis of confidence.
And our government is all crisis and no confidence. The Brown boom has ended in bust. This morning another high street bank was nationalised. This morning we learnt that mortgage lending has virtually stopped.
And millions of people in our country are desperately worried about their savings, their jobs, their mortgages and paying the weekly bills. They look at Labour and what do they see? A divided party more interested in fighting themselves than fighting for the future of the country.
And so the British people turn to us for leadership. They want to know the answer to two questions. Are you up to it? And will you make a difference?
And this week we will show them. Yes, we are. And yes, we will.
Let me talk to you today, quite calmly and quite frankly, about the grave problems our country faces. About how we got here and what we can do to pull ourselves out. I am not going to blame everything on the bankers alone. But nor am I going to excuse them of their responsibility, or allow them to think that things can carry on as before.
I am not going to do what the left has done and use the crisis as an excuse to abandon the free market economy that has made our country more prosperous. But nor do I pretend that the crisis doesn’t raise the most profound questions about our financial system and how we regulate it.
I am not going to claim that this problem only exists in Britain or that it is all the fault of the current government. But nor will I let them forget who sat there in the Treasury for 10 years while the regulation failed, the debt soared and no one called time on the Age of Irresponsibility.
The Age of Irresponsibility.
Who would have thought that the epitaph on the gravestone of the Brown years would be carved by the man himself. He says he’s going to campaign as the candidate of experience. Let him try. He’s going to find that we’ve all had quite enough of the Gordon Brown experience.
The reason why our banking system is under such strain, why thousands of people fear for their jobs, and why all the talk has been of rescue deals and bail outs is this: In Britain, and in America too, we forgot something we should never have forgotten.
We forgot that an economy built on debt is not an economy built to last. For a decade the whole world enjoyed the good times – and nowhere was the boom greater than here in Britain. We borrowed and borrowed as if the party would never end. Banks did. Businesses did. Families did. And so did this government.
And then like any party that goes on too long, things got out of hand. British households borrowed more than any in Europe. British house prices rose faster than in America. Britain’s budget deficit grew larger than any in the developed world.
And instead of trying to rein in the boom, Gordon Brown led by example. Think you’re borrowing too much? Don’t worry, Gordon Brown said, your government is borrowing even more.
Want to hide your bank’s debts off your balance sheet? Don’t worry, Gordon Brown said, your government has hidden billions of PFI debts where the public can’t find them.
Want to spend, spend, spend and not worry about who’s going to pick up the bill? Go ahead, Gordon Brown said, because that is exactly what your government is doing too.
So we racked up more than a trillion pounds of mortgages and credit card bills and households debts and the government never stopped to think what would happen if the credit dried up.
We built an economy on the engines of finance and housing and government spending, and the government never stopped to think what would happen if those engines stalled. Now the credit has dried up. The engines of the economy have stalled. The party is over.
And then, as if this was not enough, we’ve had to watch as apparently rock solid banks are blown over like trees in the path of a financial hurricane. And people suddenly realise just how fragile our debt driven economy has become.
What we need is a wholly different approach.
It is set out in the comprehensive plan for economic responsibility we published yesterday It is a plan to end Britain’s dependency on debt. We will bring fiscal responsibility to our government. And we will bring financial responsibility in our economy.
We will make sure that this mess never happens again.
But doing that means telling some hard truths. On Bradford and Bingley. We say: You can protect people’s deposits; you can try to save jobs; you can maintain confidence; but you don’t have to leave the taxpayer exposed to a multi-billion pound bill for the mistakes of the management and the big money that backed them.
For a year the government knew there was a problem at Bradford and Bingley; For a year they could have put in place the solution; For a year they dithered and delayed.
And once again it’s the taxpayer who in the last resort is left carrying the can.
And I want to say this to the City more generally. There have been terrible failures of regulation. And the people in charge for the last 10 years must bear their full share of responsibility. But in the end the failures of the banking industry are the failings of the bankers.
Perhaps there are some market ideologues who think that the money men can do no wrong. But I tell you this right now: I am not one of them.
We want the City to succeed. We recognise the importance of the investment you bring, the prosperity you have created, the thousands of jobs that depend on you.
As David Cameron says, we’re not going to engage in knee-jerk attacks on financial services. We know that the industry employs people not only in hedge funds in Mayfair, but bank branches in Mansfield and call centres in Manchester. We admire the drive and the enterprise of so many people in the business world.
We won’t let the City of London disappear to the City of Geneva or the City of Dubai or the City of Mumbai. You will get the support of a Conservative government to maintain a strong and responsible banking industry that leads the world.
But I say this too. If you take risks, then you must bear the cost. If you pay yourself sums far beyond what anyone else does in any other walk of life, then be prepared to lose it when you make mistakes. If you pay out big dividends when you should be rebuilding balance sheets, then you will be held to account.
We will do what it takes to preserve the stability of the financial system and protect the deposits of ordinary savers.
But let me warn you today: I will not increase taxes on the family earning £20,000 to carry on paying the bonuses of the banker earning £2 million pounds. You helped cause this mess and you can help pay to clear it up.
The Conservative Party has always been ready to help those in need. But we have always said that there are no rights without responsibilities. No help without conditions.
This is what we have said to the poorest people in our society. I am not going to say anything different to the richest. And for those on the left who think the Conservatives won’t act, I’ve got a message for you. Unlike New Labour we are not bedazzled by big money. We respect wealth creation but unlike New Labour we don’t fawn over it.
It wasn’t New Labour who was the first to say that the non doms should pay their fair share. And it wasn’t Conservatives who opposed a temporary ban on short-selling. We know what Gordon Brown is trying to do.
He wants to blame the right for the failures of the left.
But Gordon, you won’t get away with blaming us for casino capitalism when you’re the man whose been running the casino and collecting in the chips for the last 11 years. Let me remind you.
It’s the Conservatives who published a report on problem debt three years ago and ran a national campaign to warn people of its dangers. It’s Conservatives who for the last year have offered bipartisan support to increase protection for savers. It’s Conservatives who now want to give power to the Bank of England to call time on reckless borrowing. We Conservatives fought the last general election warning that borrowing was out of control.
And it is we Conservatives who will fight the next election promising to bring borrowing under control.
For let me tell you a second hard and uncomfortable truth. Government has to live within its means.
And that means as well as financial responsibility we need fiscal responsibility. These are times of great economic distress for families.
I know many many families struggling with rising bills and higher costs; I know there are many many families who are now worrying about their jobs and keeping up their mortgage payments.
I give you this pledge.
We Conservatives will do everything possible, everything in our power to help. We will cut your petrol taxes as oil prices rise. We will get you on the lowest rates for your gas and electricity. We will take young families facing higher mortgage costs permanently out of stamp duty.
We will give companies facing bankruptcy a breathing space to protect your job. We will abandon Labour’s grotesquely ill-conceived and ill-timed new tax on family cars. We will not leave you alone in this crisis.
I wish we could do even more. A responsible government would be able to use all the money it put aside in those good years to help families now that times are tough. That’s what many governments are doing around the world.
But the British government can’t. Why?
We know why. Labour failed to fix the roof when the sun was shining. Gordon Brown will do anything to avoid telling this country the truth. So as he won’t, I will.
The cupboard is bare. There is no more money. Tax revenues have collapsed. Unemployment costs are rising. Borrowing is out of control. Labour has done it again.
So it’s no good talking about the big up-front tax giveaways we might like to make, or the big spending increases it might be nice to have. Because I repeat: there is no more money.
I listen to Gordon Brown with mounting amazement. A billion pounds here. A billion pounds there. £2.7 billion pounds on losing the Crewe by-election. Which is 2.7 billion pounds more than it cost us.
All unfunded. All unpaid for.
Gordon Brown is spending money like there’s no tomorrow. Well for him there may be no tomorrow, but for us there is. And I believe that there is nothing more irresponsible or cynical or unfair than getting the next generation to pay the bills that you are not prepared to pay yourself.
Our first priority will have to be bringing stability to the public finances. Today we announce a radically new approach that will change forever the way budgets are made in this country.
We are going to scrap the dishonest, discredited and worthless fiscal rules. They have been fixed and fiddled so many times by Gordon Brown no one believes them any more. He went on and on about his golden rule, but it turns out the golden rule is this. Never trust a Labour government with the public finances.
Instead the next Conservative government will make this clear commitment.
We will put the government finances on a path out of the red and into the black.
Our goal over time will be to balance the current budget and ensure falling national debt. We will put sound money first.
But I want to make sure that this won’t be yet another promise made by a politician and which is then broken.
So we will do what no government has ever done before.
We will set up a new Office for Budget Responsibility, independent of government like the Bank of England is.
This independent Office will stand in judgement over our commitments, hold us to our promises. And it will let the whole country know if we try to wriggle out of them. No more fiddling of the rules. No more dodgy statistics. No more hidden PFI borrowing.
Chancellors will be forced to behave responsibly with the public finances or face the public consequences.
And if even after what I have told you about the need to return to sound money, there are still some who think that Britain can borrow to pay for big unfunded tax cuts, let me just say this.
I want to cut taxes too. I want to put money back into the pockets of families and help businesses compete.
It is the aspiration and ambition of this Party that we leave office with taxes lower than when we came in. But I am not prepared to play fast and loose with the national debt in the pursuit of low taxes. David and I are fiscal when this Party reduces taxes, I want those reductions to last. Before we can cut taxes we have to stop taxes rising.
The whole country is having to tighten its belt and save money. So too should their government. In the private sector when times are tough you take out the overheads. The consultants are sent packing and the advertising budget is cut. Government should do the same.
We are going to put caps on Labour’s wasteful consultancy and advertising bills. So that we can make this announcement to you, today.
The country may not be able to afford upfront tax cuts because borrowing is too high. But families facing the squeeze cannot afford tax rises either. We are going into partnership with local councils.
If they find matching savings in their town hall, we will give them these savings from Whitehall.
I can tell you today that the next Conservative government will freeze your council tax for at least two years.
Every council tax bill of every family in every council that takes part will be frozen.
Instead of council tax bills that rise year after year under Labour, millions of families will get help at the time they need it most.
Conservatives will not leave people to struggle with the credit crunch alone. We will not walk on by. That’s not what Conservatives do. We will help families cope with this crisis.
And we will help the country plan for recovery. Throughout this week you will hear from our team about the:
education reforms we will make; the welfare changes we will introduce; the parts of the country we will bring together by high speed rail.
So that we don’t just have world-class financial services but world beating manufacturing too.
Gordon Brown had ten years to do these things but he didn’t. He really thinks that his problem with the British people is that he’s too serious and doesn’t smile enough. He just doesn’t get it. Being too serious isn’t his problem.
His problem is that he promised ‘prudence’ and then spent and borrowed his way into a record budget deficit.
His problem is that he promised ‘fairness’ and then so cynically posed as a tax cutter on the backs on the poorest with the 10p tax rise,
His problem is that he promised ‘dignity in retirement’ and then his first act was to raid the pots of those who had saved for their pension. His problem is that he told us like some old Testament Prophet that he alone had abolished the economic cycle; His problem is that through his hubris and his arrogance he left Britain so badly prepared when the cycle turned.
Gordon Brown told us he had ended ‘stop go’. No more ‘boom and bust’ he promised. Well, now the boom is over and the bust has come. And the message to Gordon Brown from the British people is simple. Stop. Go.
If this country is going to get out of this economic mess, then for the first time in his career he’s going to have to confront his mistakes. And for the first time he is going to have stop dithering. And for the first time he is going to have to listen to the hard working people of this country.
Well, Mr Brown, when it comes to leading and listening and understanding: You know I believe in apprenticeships. But this is no time for a novice.
So we offer the country change. Change from Labour’s Age of Irresponsibility to a new Conservative Age of Responsibility.
And that brings me to my last truth. It is a truth that I profoundly believe in. Something that motivates me in all I do in politics.
I believe that the best years of this country lie ahead, not behind. I believe that our future will be better than our past. I have talked to you about the problems that we face because I want us to have our eyes open.
Before us lies a tough task. Before us lie difficult decisions. We have shown the courage to face up to those in government before and we will show the same courage again.
But I want to tell you something else. I want to tell you what makes our Party great. In this Conservative Party, we are optimists who never stop being realists.
We are revolutionaries who never stop being pragmatic. We dare to dream but never run away from the day to day. We are idealists who never have our head in the sand. Be in no doubt. A hard road lies ahead of us. But that hard road leads over the horizon.
Over the horizon will be Britain:
- strong again
- prosperous again
- confident again
- proud again
So join us on this journey. For we have work to do and a future to build.