Cameron off the cuff: the conference verdict

He prepared in his shirtsleeves and gave his speech without autocue. But did he deliver?
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Indy Politics

It will become a familiar image of David Cameron as he prepared for the latest trial of a remarkably brief career close to the summit of British politics; a photograph of the Conservative leader, in shirtsleeves in his makeshift office, working late into the night on a speech that would decide his future.

Gordon Brown would never allow such an infringement of his inner sanctum. Neither would he deliver a speech as audacious as the one Cameron produced hours later to a relieved audience in Blackpool's Winter Gardens.

Cameron received many plaudits for his address, not least from an increasingly anxious Tory Party pondering its chances of laying a glove on the Prime Minister at a general election any time soon.

He might – just – have forced Labour to think again about calling an early election. But the true scale of his accomplishment can be found in the comparison with Brown's booming address to his own conference nine days before.

Where Brown lectured his party, rigid at a lectern in the centre of the platform, Cameron sauntered around his stage, engaging his audience with a homily delivered in his unique conversational style – without notes.

More significantly, unlike Brown, Cameron identified problems and went some way to proposing solutions. Health, education, defence, taxation and the rest; one by one, with metronomic efficiency.

Cameron underlined the degree to which he had managed to modernise his party, in line with the pledges he made when running for leadership two years ago; the leader was euphoric in his praise for the NHS and state education.

Nevertheless, the great reformer's conference managed to defer to enough traditional Tory shibboleths to question the leadership's appetite for change. The show-stopping proposal to raise the inheritance tax threshold from £300,000 to £1m, for example, will actually have no impact on the lives of the vast majority of voters.

Elsewhere, before Cameron's reassuring intervention, the party reserved its greatest approval for traditional contributions from hardline defence and home affairs spokesmen, and a tax-cutting shadow chancellor.

Cameron could not resist the ritual attacks on British bureaucrats, red tape and Europe: perhaps his reforming instincts must be temporarily sacrificed to guarantee the support of the hard-core of traditional Conservatives required to shore up the vote.

Cameron dramatically challenged Brown to call an election, but the polls in the aftermath of the conference suggest he has achieved his more likely intention of making Brown think again.

Amid the afterglow, a relieved Cameron declared: "For the first time in a great many years, Britain has an Opposition party worthy of the name." For all his grand ambitions, the extent of Cameron's achievements so far may be that he has moulded the Tories into an effective Opposition – just when he needs to convince the nation that they are worthy of government.