Tuesday, 16 October 2012

David Cameron bites back

Hands up who liked David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative conference? I have to put up my hand actually, despite the ridicule I will get from many readers. I was also quite impressed by Ed Miliband’s speech though, so maybe I’m just fickle. As that may be, I thought both speeches and conferences had their good points and bad points; which makes them fairly reflective of the parties themselves. Supporters of both sides (except the Lib Dems) have reason to be happy with their leader’s speeches. Despite the good ideas I saw in Mr Miliband’s speech, it was Mr Cameron who I thought really lifted the bar and laid the ground for a (relatively) epic two and-a-half year battle going into 2015.

Conservative commentators have largely been satisfied by Mr Cameron’s speech. I was impressed by the clarity of the argument from a leader who has hitherto struggled to define himself during his premiership. Mr Cameron needed a good message with good delivery to steady a party that has been rocked (along with his leadership) in the past six months. Unlike his counterpart, he relied on notes, but as No. 10 duly noted; “he’s Prime Minister, he doesn’t have days and days to practice and memorise a speech – like you do in Opposition”. From behind the podium, he perhaps looked more Prime Ministerial than Mr Miliband’s walky-talky performance.

After Mr Miliband’s attacks, Mr Cameron needed to come out fighting. This meant that he was seen as reactionary by some, but he could not have let Mr Miliband’s accusations go unchecked, or else look weak. His response was to effectively line up all of Labour’s attacks and ‘misconceptions’ and deal with them one by one; simultaneously he was able to clarify his brand of Toryism and land some good blows on Labour.
The central tenet of Mr Cameron’s speech was well summed up by the following lines:

“We don’t preach about one nation but practise class war. We just get behind people who want to get on in life… They call us the party of the better-off: no, we are the party of the want-to-be-better-off, those who strive to make a better life for themselves and their families – and we should never, ever be ashamed of saying so.”

This message will do little to placate the disgust of Labour supporters towards the Tory’s economic policies but that was never the aim. Labour commentators constantly argue that “everybody” can see that the Coalition’s economic policies are failing, but unfortunately the public are equally, if not more, distrusting of Labour’s economic record. Instead, Mr Cameron attempted to deliver a unifying message to all those conservative, liberal and independent voters disenchanted with the government, but equally less keen on the opposition. If you’re a Labour supporter and you watched it and hated it, then that’s not really surprising.

The speech also included some genuinely moving words on how the Paralympics affected Mr Cameron, as a father of a deceased disabled son, as well as an attempt to clarify the ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ image with, amongst other things, a recommitment to the NHS. But the real message remained the neat explanation of how conservative values are the answer to the current economic situation. Undoubtedly Mr Cameron’s best line was his ‘Labour is the party of one notion – borrowing’ pun. Ignoring the fact that a recession has meant that borrowing has gone up, Mr Cameron stuck to his guns and backed George Osborne to continue the party’s task of taking the ‘tough choices’ for the country.

Indicative of this was the ‘sink or swim’ message Mr Cameron used to justify the difficult decisions that he has taken for Britain. This was a message that certainly needed repeating after the past six month of gaffes and incompetence that has come close to ruining the image of the government. But it was the personalised version of this message, the one targeted at the individual, those so called ‘strivers’, which I think is strongest declaration.

Labour should be wary of this message; in defining this target group Mr Cameron has also found a level of clarity at a critical point two years before the election. In backing the ‘strivers’ Mr Cameron also sums up the other big party policies: Welfare reform to guarantee no benefits claimant will be better off staying on benefits; devolution of the education system; tax breaks and loans to small businesses – given out in a ‘Dragons Den’ style.

The narrative is clear: Mr Cameron reiterated that the country is suffering short term pain for long term gain, that this was needed in order to survive in an ever more competitive world, and that Labour are too irresponsible for the job. I have previously commented on the good ideas that came out of Mr Miliband’s speech; Mr Cameron now has found his central message, and has two years left in government to put any good ideas into effect. If he would just fire Andrew Mitchell then supporters may see things looking up.

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