Saturday, October 13, 2012

Deeply disingenuous, but Cameron has the final say

Seven years ago, the Conservative Party faithful gathered in Blackpool for what most observers expected would be a leadership stand-off between right-wing former council house boy David Davis and veteran Europhile Ken Clarke.

That was, of course, before a young MP by the name of David Cameron came along and tore up the script, delivering a speech without notes that electrified the party and made them believe that, with him in charge, they could finally put an end to their losing streak.

That all seems a long time ago now.  Although he did become Prime Minister, Mr Cameron did not turn out to be quite the winner his party had hoped for, and this week’s conference in Birmingham had an element of seven-year-itch about it.

So notwithstanding the fact that his speaking-without-notes routine has since been successfully imitated by other political leaders, it was perhaps no surprise that Mr Cameron eschewed it this week in favour of a traditional, scripted address.

It was, by some distance, the most serious speech of the conference season and indeed of Mr Cameron’s political career to date.

His talk of an “hour of reckoning” for the British economy was a far cry from the David Cameron of a few years back who exhorted us in a previous conference speech to “let sunshine win the day.”  

If that was possibly the worst Cameron soundbite ever coined, someone had clearly been working on them in the run-up to Wednesday’s address.

“The party of one notion:  borrowing” and “I’m not here to defend privilege, but to spread it” may not be in quite the same league as “the Lady’s not for turning”  but they are likely to stick longer in the memory than anything either of the other two party leaders have come up with in the past three weeks.

But for all its statesmanlike qualities and oratorical panache, it was, however, a deeply disingenuous speech by the Prime Minister.

Nowhere was this more so than when Mr Cameron sought to claim that only the Conservatives had ‘protected’ the NHS from spending cuts, saying:  “Be in no doubt:  this is the party of the NHS and that’s the way it’s going to stay,”

Leaving aside, for a moment, the fact that the government’s Health and Social Care Act has actually turned the NHS into no more than a brand, the situation on the ground is very different.

The reality, in my own local health trust at any rate, is that a fifth of the workforce is to be sacrificed over the next four years to meet the government’s spending squeeze.

In terms of political positioning, the core message of Mr Cameron’s speech was in its appeal to the aspirational voters who previously helped deliver election success to both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

“They call us the party of the better-off.  No, we are the party of the want to be better off,” he said in another of those catchy soundbites.

But the truth of the matter is that, in the public sector at any rate, there are tens of thousands of “want to be better offs” who have simply had the rug cut from under them - a disproportionate number of those being in the North-East.

If the unspoken assumption behind this is that no-one with any genuine aspiration actually goes into the public sector in the first place, then that betrays how little Mr Cameron knows about the way most of us live.

The conference season ends with the battle line starting to be drawn for an election which, on the evidence of the past few weeks, is shaping up to be much more of a two-way fight than the last one.

Ed Miliband’s speech, with his audacious bid to grab the One Nation mantle of the old-style Tory moderates was, once again, the boldest of the three, while Nick Clegg’s, at a time when he needed to put clear yellow water between himself and the Tories, was sadly forgettable.

Mr Cameron’s was the most sombre, but perhaps more importantly in terms of shaping the political agenda going forward, also the last.

It’s purely an accident of history that always lets the Tory leader have the final say in this three-week battle for political supremacy, but this year, at least, it was one he took full advantage of.

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