Tory leader David Cameron has always sought to model himself on Tony Blair, and his policy-light, rhetoric-rich speech in Manchester on Thursday was no exception. Almost everything else about it was designed to demonstrate that he is both the heir to Blair and the antithesis of Brown. Here's today's Journal column.
It is inevitable that, as the Conservative Party moves closer and closer towards government, people will start to pay more and more attention to what a Britain led by David Cameron would actually look like.
The Journal has already begun to do just that, posing the question in Monday’s edition as to what a Tory administration would do for the North-East.
The answer, from where I’m standing, is probably precious little – Mr Cameron’s “pledge” on dualling the A1, for instance, is even more vague than the half-hearted promise uttered by Tony Blair as opposition leader 13 long years ago.
Then again, since New Labour has spent the intervening period doing very little for the region itself, the two main parties are probably pretty even on this score.
Labour’s abject failure to do more to help the least well-off during its long period in power is already emerging as a key Tory campaign theme.
“Don’t you dare lecture us about poverty. You have failed and it falls to us, the modern Conservative Party, to fight for the poorest who you have let down,” said Mr Cameron on Thursday, in a passage aimed fairly and squarely at Gordon Brown.
The Prime Minister’s people have already responded by pointing to the Tories’ decision to stick by their controversial 2007 pledge to raise inheritance tax thresholds for the richest 1pc of households in the country.
But having presided over a marked growth in inequality since 1997, the government is onto a loser here, and notwithstanding his own party’s record on the issue, Mr Cameron is certainly within his rights to point it out.
Thursday’s keynote speech – light on policy but big on rhetoric – seemed designed as a deliberate contrast with Mr Brown’s policy-rich but rather underwhelming effort of a week earlier.
Its central theme – an attack on “big government” – was certainly audacious, coming in the midst of an economic recession caused primarily by a failure properly to regulate the financial markets,
But the “anti politics” mood created by the expenses scandal, coupled with the general mood of disillusionment towards Labour’s target-setting and micro-management, makes this fertile ground for the Tories.
Mr Cameron is not making the case so much for deregulated financial markets, as deregulated schools, hospitals and councils, the “new localism” that Labour flirted with under Mr Blair but comprehensively abandoned under Mr Brown.
What policy detail there was in Manchester was to be found not in Mr Cameron’s speech but in Shadow Chancellor George Osborne’s – another echo there of the Blair-Brown partnership.
He finally set out his plans to reduce the fiscal deficit by proposing an increase in the retirement age to 66, a one-year pay freeze for public sector workers, and a clampdown on “middle-class” welfare payments such as child tax credit.
By coming clean about his proposed cutbacks, Mr Osborne runs the risk of seeing his plans picked apart in the way John Smith’s proposed tax rises were in 1992, but in my view the electorate will respect his candour.
In any case, it wasn’t Smith’s Shadow Budget which lost Labour the ’92 election, but Neil Kinnock’s absurd histrionics in Sheffield – something Mr Cameron is unlikely to repeat.
With Labour having failed to produce a political “game changer” in Brighton, Mr Cameron had only to avoid a disastrous blunder this week in order to end the conference season in pole position for the election race.
Not only did he do that, he actually managed to articulate what Mr Brown has consistently failed to offer – a “big vision” of Britain’s future.
The best bit of Thursday’s speech was the last bit - the “view from the summit” passage where Mr Cameron started to set out the kind of Britain he wants to build once the deficit has been paid off.
After ten years of Mr Blair, the public was fed-up with this style of politics. Two years of Mr Brown has been enough to bring it back into fashion.