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UK Politics

Statesman or salesman? Why Cameron's speech failed to inspire

The Tories had a good conference – and appear set fair for the general election. But there are nagging doubts after their leader's address

It was the best line in the speech that would turn the politics of the decade on its head: "We can lead that new generation, we can be that new generation, we can change this party and we can change this country. But we need the courage to do it – it will be a wonderful journey."

Last week, four years on from David Cameron's captivating address to his party conference in Blackpool that secured him the Tory leadership, he was all but confirmed as Britain's 53rd prime minister.

But are voters convinced that he has the statesmanlike qualities to be in Downing Street, or have they been merely swept along by the clever tricks of a salesman at the fag-end of an increasingly unpopular third-term Labour government?

Can he offer Britain a "wonderful journey" when he was less than clear last Thursday in explaining how he would get to the summit he spoke of climbing? And why, when he is famous for capping conference season with thrilling without-notes oratory, did he deliver such a low-key – some have said pedestrian – speech?

In typically Cameronite footage on webcameron, released on the eve of the speech, the Conservative leader, surrounded by his team, said he had to "make sure my voice doesn't go – it sounds a little bit reedy". One Cameron aide last night dismissed the suggestion that his hoarse voice was as a result of pressure, or even a bad cold. "He just has to speak a lot during conference – it's the hazard of the job."

Some believe the subdued performance was intentional, another piece of stagecraft: to invert the style-over- substance claim in a bid to sound prime-ministerial.

But this weekend, doubts remain. In his speech, he failed to set out how he would achieve the bold, progressive ends – of every child having the same life chances he had, and for the NHS to work as a living, breathing organic body – with the conservative means of spending cuts and small government.

What is beyond doubt is that the polls show the Tories heading towards an election victory next May. They are helped by the personality of Mr Cameron, carefully shaped and protected by spin-doctors. One senior Tory described Mr Cameron as like a "normal Dad at Waitrose" but who could be imagined in Downing Street.

Another, perhaps less flatteringly, says he is "Sir Alec Douglas-Home goes to Glastonbury" – the Old Etonian with a trendy, 21st-century image.

With Labour on its knees, the Tories could be swept to power because of Mr Cameron's marketability alone – so does it matter if he is only a salesman and not a statesman?

Mr Cameron and his team have to do more than present the leader, and his telegenic wife Samantha in a Marks and Spencer tea dress, to regain power.

In 2005, to win Tory votes, he said: "There will be no turning back, no false starts, no more tacking one way or another." What followed were campaigns to "vote blue, go green", to ease the plight of sub-Saharan Africans, to protect health spending. Four years on, Mr Cameron has tacked away from the environment – it merited just three sentences in his speech. However, Oxfam was delighted with a promise by Tory climate spokesman Greg Clark last week to spend money on alleviating climate change in Africa over and above the commitment to match Labour's 0.7 per cent of GDP for aid spending.

But Mr Cameron's alliance with homophobic politicians in Europe has lost him the support of the gay community. A poll for PinkNews this weekend found 22 per cent of gay readers would vote Tory – a drop from 39 per cent in June – after concerns in Manchester about Michal Kaminski and his Polish Law and Justice Party. By contrast, Labour are on 36 per cent compared with 29 per cent in June.

A member of the shadow Cabinet, sipping coffee in Manchester last week, was frank about whether the party had changed. The Tory said: "We have not sealed the deal, and it is likely we won't seal the deal by the time of the election. It will take time. People do still think we are the same old Tories.... People are convinced he [Cameron] is different but they're not convinced about the rest of us."

The polls, with around a 12-point lead, suggest the Tories are still heading for an outright majority rather than a hung Parliament. Yet anything can happen in the next six months – including Labour ditching Gordon Brown in favour of a fresher candidate, which could lift the party a few points.

Parliament returns tomorrow, with Mr Brown determined to fight on as Prime Minister, despite the recent bad news about his eyesight and the continued doubts about his leadership.

Despite this talk of not sealing "the deal", those around Mr Cameron are so confident that they dismiss suggestions of a hung Parliament. The signs are in key marginals where the Tories have streaked ahead into Labour territory – from Wakefield, west along the M62, around Manchester, down the M6 and M5 towards the swing seat of Worcester. One senior strategist, asked whether a hung Parliament could be the outcome in 2010, declared: "We are nowhere near in that territory. The battleground is really interesting, and shows where we'll win."

This same strategist, it must be said, echoed the warning from the shadow Cabinet member that people still believe them to be the "same old Tories".

And there is always the unpredictable that could throw Mr Cameron off course. On Sunday, Boris Johnson overshadowed the start of the conference by calling for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, regardless of whether it had been ratified by all European countries – firmly against the more cautious line of the Tory leadership.

The London Mayor was just about to board his train at Piccadilly when a text message came through from a senior member of Mr Cameron's team. It was in Italian, and it was rather rude, say those familiar with the message.

The up-and-down relationship between Mr Johnson and Mr Cameron – stretching back to Eton – generated the headlines. Although, one insider suggested, the rivalry is played up in a bid to disguise the real tensions – perhaps between Mr Cameron and George Osborne, who is being sidelined as the Tory deputy by William Hague.

But one senior Tory dismissed suggestions that Mr Johnson's frequent and noisy interventions were serious.

Describing the week, he said: "We are on a plane. We took off from the runway and immediately hit turbulence – Europe. Then Boris got up out of his seat and moved to the front, causing the plane to lurch downwards. Passengers were alarmed that he was going to try to wrest the controls from the pilots, but all he wanted was a bottle of gin.... There was then an announcement by Captain Osborne. 'Ladies and gentlemen, it's going to be a difficult journey... but we are expecting a smooth landing into JFK.'"

What about the pilot, Captain Cameron? On Friday, he celebrated his 43rd birthday with his family. The day before, his speech was preceded by a clip of his 2005 performance, the leadership bid, when he promised "Real change... is not some slick rebranding exercise or marketing exercised in spin."

But, four years on, some believe that is what his leadership has been all along.

Suggestion Box: Readers help fill out Mr Cameron's policies

"Recall the Army from Afghanistan and organise a friendly between Kandahar Athletic and Millwall." Independent on Sunday readers gave generously in response to our appeal for donations to the Conservative policy bank. Last week, concerned about the thinness of David Cameron's prospectus being prepared for his annual conference, we invited suggestions for policies for the Tory manifesto. Barry Blatt had a number of Millwall-based ideas, including the proposal that hunting should be reintroduced and extended to urban foxes, which would be "a more elegant and useful bloodsport than supporting the likes of Millwall". Meanwhile, the Army should be redeployed from Afghanistan to close tax havens, invading Gibraltar, the Channel Isles, Liechtenstein, etc – "a war we might actually win, for a change".

David Mullooly proposed a Top Hat Height Restriction Review. Stephen Hayward suggested throwing a few slices of bread to the voters, who should have their teeth extracted just in case they choose to bite the hand that feeds them. Ken Evans has a plan to abolish the rush hour, saying that, if planning law were changed to replace zoning with "pepper mix" development, traffic could be cut dramatically. Keith Flett, inveterate letter-writer and facial hair campaigner, said that "diversity of appearance, including a few beards, would say more about the Tories modernising than a thousand policies".

Simon House wanted to "give every citizen the right to gain respect by working 21 hours in exchange for their benefits"; to "be as flexible in the interpretation of European legislation as, say, France"; and to "stop supermarkets selling alcohol". He said he has more where those came from, if the Conservative leader's office would like to get in touch.

Thank you to all, and we look forward to the publication of the Tory election manifesto.

John Rentoul

The verdict on Cameron...

Every effect was planned. His son had no place in a conference speech

Margaret Drabble, Author

I was blown away by the speech. It seemed heartfelt. There were no cheap tricks

Ivan Massow, Entrepreneur

I am suspicious that he is a showman, but we need to give him a chance first

Philip Pullman, Author

If he got a greyhound, then the whole countryside would vote for him

Jilly Cooper, Author

He's already demonstrated that he's got the potential to be a good statesman

Sir Bernard Ingham, Journalist and former press secretary

He may be the PM we deserve. We aren't mature enough for one of Gordon Brown's character

Rod Liddle, Journalist

He'll make a good leader, in a way that Brown is not. His speech was clever, in that it was very dull

Ann Leslie, Journalist and writer

He's plastic, all shiny and with no substance

Brian Paddick, Former senior Scotland Yard officer and Lib Dem mayoral candidate

It's too early to tell, although he lacks a certain charisma that Tony Blair had in bucketfuls

Sir Roy Strong, Historian and author

Today, my thoughts aren't with David Cameron – they are with Barack Obama

Ruth Rogers, Chef

I think he and his party will go on to be worse than the Labour Party. He's an old Etonian PR guy

Alexei Sayle, Comedian and actor

I like him, and I think he'll make a very fine prime minister

Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Writer and historian