Cameron responds to Miliband, but still keeps his options open

An opposition leader hasn’t set the agenda in such a challenging way since Thatcher
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Full marks to David Cameron for making a speech without spurious policy announcements and choosing instead to advance an argument. There are already plenty of points in the year when a government has no choice but to announce policies. However if a  leader takes the grown-up decision to avoid headline-grabbing initiatives that are quickly forgotten he must find ways of dramatising the argument, and framing a case of depth.

Cameron failed to do this as he ended his party’s conference. Instead his themes were  familiar and developed superficially. No doubt next year he will arrive armed with illustrative policies for the next election. But he will need to deepen the argument too if he wants to be heard, let alone sway many voters.

Much of yesterday’s speech was a response to Ed Miliband’s one last week. I cannot recall an opposition leader setting the agenda in such a challenging way since Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s. Tony Blair appeared to do so as leader of the opposition, but his distinctive pitch was to lecture his party about the need to accept most existing orthodoxies, a relatively undemanding task when a party ached to win an election after four defeats.

Miliband is braver. He has raised fresh  questions about what should happen when  markets fail and when a powerful militant  newspaper becomes indiscriminately abusive. Wisely in his speech, Cameron did not engage with Miliband’s important battle with the Daily Mail, but he devoted much of his speech to an attack on the Labour leadership.

The attack was surprisingly clichéd. Cameron has a range of thoughtful advisers behind the scenes, all of them reflecting privately with nuanced subtlety on Miliband’s speech. Some were genuinely impressed with it. Yet in the conference hall Cameron talked of Red Ed, mocked Ed Balls and repeated the familiar jibe about Labour wanting excellence for their own children but not for anyone else’s, a silly allegation if anyone thinks about it for more than a second.

All of these lines were part of his key theme, that Labour messed up the economy, the Conservatives are fixing it and there is still a long way to go. It would be quite wrong to accuse Cameron and George Osborne of arrogance. No senior politician in British politics has the  option of arrogance with a media abusing or mocking them, along with the polls and focus groups that torment them too.

But I detect complacency in the duo’s current thinking which, from their strategic perspective, goes along these lines: now the economy is  recovering there is a danger that voters will risk letting Labour back in, so we have to stress there is still a long way to go – as Obama did last year in the US during his victorious campaign – and to continue to send out a tough message on spending to trap Labour.

The complacency takes two forms. First, the basis of the entire narrative is false. Cameron  repeated again that when he took over in 2010 the economy was at “a crisis point”. Once more Greece got a couple of mentions as if the UK were in an equivalent place. But the economy was growing again in 2010. The fiscal stimulus had worked, the policy that Cameron and Osborne had opposed. The UK economy went back into recession after the 2010 election.

I also wonder whether the current recovery is so robust that voters will seize with gratitude the message that Cameron and Osborne plan to cut their way towards a budget surplus after the next election, not least when the Chancellor’s  target to wipe out the deficit in this parliament has not been met.

Cameron has a point in noting that Labour has moved on from a debate about whether “Plan A” is working to one on living standards. But revealingly he did not answer precisely Miliband’s arguments on the need for government to intervene in markets that do not serve consumers. There is a reason for this. I got the impression from speaking to a range of senior Conservatives in Manchester they have not decided quite how to respond. They know they cannot go into the next election defending higher bills so they are leaving options open for the time being and waiting to see whether they can destroy Miliband’s proposal with a general  argument. Again the argument is a familiar one about being  pro-business in a way that leads to wealth  creation benefiting the many and not just the few, the Labour slogan that Cameron claimed as one that applied to his party.

That assertion implies that Britain does best when government keeps out of the way, and it explains what was not in the speech. There was no sense of urgency that government must be more active in order to revive the economy. Beyond a commendable defence of high speed rail, Cameron made no attempt to explain how he planned to re-balance the economy, nor placed in context the titanic task any government faces in an economy previously dependent alone on a booming financial sector. He chose instead to play the card that the crisis was all the fault of the previous Labour government and his task was to clear it up. If it is the only card he plays, Cameron will never be able to delve deeper about the titanic task ahead and the role that a  government must play in addressing it. Still the 80-year-old Michael Heseltine faces no challenge to his role as the party’s leading moderniser in seeking a more active state.

Cameron’s more limited claim to modernity came yesterday in the parts that he left out. There was no populist rant against immigration and not very much about Europe. He must be  hoping that Ukip will implode by the time of the election although, of course, he has an offer of a referendum on the UK’s membership of Europe in his back pocket, a pledge that will make his life hell if he wins a second term.

His chances of winning will depend on factors well beyond this party conference season, but, for the first time in a long time, these annual autumnal gatherings have made a difference. Nick Clegg showed that his party, or what remains of it, was willing to follow his leadership at least until the election. Vince Cable, although correct in his economic analysis, appeared as the dissenting voice, rather than a leader-in-waiting moving with the party’s tide. Presumably quite a lot of his fellow social democrats have left. Miliband made the defining speech, one that will be seen as a key moment in determining his fate at the next election. The Conservatives, clinging to the fragile recovery like a shield, remain the party most interested in ideas, but still lack  decisive weapons of attack in an economic  context that challenges quite a lot of the  assumptions from their political upbringings in the 1980s.

The election dividing lines are sharper than at any time for 30 years. Newspaper editors have no excuse for attacking dead fathers from the safety of their sheltered offices when there is more than enough real life political drama for them to report.

Twitter: steverichards14