His conference speech was statesmanlike, resolute and human. But David Cameron is beset by perils

The Prime Minister looked fresh and unfazed during his conference speech, and he put the Tory case well. But will that be enough to save him?

Share

At least David Cameron retains a youthful verve. He addressed his party’s conference yesterday more besieged than any Prime Minister since Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in the 1970s. That exhausted, embattled duo from a seemingly distant age sought to do their best with the words available to them as they led in a hung parliament against the background of unyielding economic crisis. Yesterday, Cameron spoke to his party and the wider electorate in the midst of a double dip recession and the first hung parliament since the 1970s. The IMF provided the immediate gloomy context, downgrading its growth forecast the day before his speech.

Unlike Wilson and Callaghan, Cameron looks fresh and unfazed. His speech was fresh, too. Thankfully, he did not waste time announcing supposedly new policies that either turn out not to be new or are never implemented. Following Ed Miliband’s tour de force, he chose to frame an argument instead. As conferences retreat ever further into deadening insignificance, the leaders’ speeches have become more carefully structured and interesting, less studded with policy gimmicks and almost daring to engage in an ideological debate.

Cameron put the Tory case well, and I was struck how rare it is to hear him or members of his Government make the wider argument for what they are doing. They prefer to implement their revolutionary crusade by stealth – what George Osborne described revealingly in his speech as their “quiet revolution”.

 Cameron spoke up. Like Margaret Thatcher did when she more cautiously sought to reshape the state, Cameron hit upon a populist language. His policies would spread privilege not entrench it. His motives were compassionate and not elitist. The argument was especially well developed in relation to his welfare reforms – cuts projected as an act of kindness.

Unsubtly, but perhaps in ways that reassure those seeking evidence of his “compassion”, he placed renewed focus on the protective shields that he added when he became leader. He hailed the international aid budget, criticised by some in his party. He insisted, as he did when he first became leader, that the Tories were the party of the NHS. He led a party for gay people, ethnic minorities, North and South. Yet the need for reiteration seven years after he became a self-proclaimed modernising leader in itself showed that most voters are still wary of a party that has on many policy issues moved further to the right since the more centrist John Major was defeated in 1997.

Indeed the speech was largely defensive and yet cleverly became assertive. It was as much a response to current perceptions of him as Ed Miliband’s was an attempt to deal with his poor personal ratings. Cameron is well ahead in the polls on appearing Prime Ministerial so he sought to be resolute and statesmanlike in delivery, demeanour and projection. He and his Cabinet are viewed as out-of-touch toffs, so he dealt with this perception straight on. He wants everyone to go to schools as good as Eton. His father was a stockbrocker but a hard-working one who overcame terrible physical setbacks. He was a hard worker, too. The humanising passages worked well.

But as with Nick Clegg’s solid speech a fortnight ago, there is a nightmarish context to all this. Cameron began by stating that he came to power at a “grave moment” in May 2010 and the economy was now “healing”. This is nonsense. The economy was growing in May 2010 and is in recession now. Labour’s panic-stricken, erratic but pragmatically balanced approach was a more effective response to the financial meltdown than Cameron and Osborne’s programme of unprecedented, instant austerity.

Cameron is the first Tory Prime Minister to be safe from possible challenge since Margaret Thatcher won a landslide in 1983.

Cameron’s claim to lead the party that supports the NHS will be tested when costly, and likely chaotic reforms are implemented over the next year. Popular arguments about the welfare budget will become less popular if the radical overhaul leads to cases of injustice or administrative cock-ups that wreck people’s lives. There are other tests to come – from next month’s election of police commissioners to the cut in the top rate of tax in April.

Still, in mid-term, the Prime Minister has several straws on which to cling. He is lucky to have no serious rival for his job this side of the election. Boris is out of parliament, in the right place at the right time to become as popular as the Beatles and in the wrong place at the wrong time to oust Cameron. Apart from the London Mayor, there is no credible contender.

Cameron is the first Tory Prime Minister to be safe from possible challenge since Margaret Thatcher won a landslide in 1983. As a bonus, the army of Tory newspapers and ubiquitous columnists are broadly supportive and are still critical of Ed Miliband. They and the BBC will set Miliband a much higher bar than they did Cameron when he was in opposition. Above all, by the run-up to the election, the economy will almost certainly be growing a little. Labour has so far lost the battle over the recent past, with polls suggesting most voters blame it for the original economic crisis. The recent past remains a dangerous place for Labour and one where reasoned debate is almost impossible.

For Cameron, it is the near future that is treacherous. The policies of the most radical government since 1945’s Labour administration are now being implemented and will be tested not in speeches but by how they impact on people’s lives. In order to survive as a national force, the Lib Dems must extract major concessions in the coming months. As the Lib Dems claim all so-called progressive policies as theirs, the Tories risk looking as “nasty” as they did in 2001.

Above all there is little evidence to suggest that Cameron can build an overall majority next time on the back of a Thatcherite agenda moderated by some socially liberal attitudes. Yesterday, he delivered a speech that made the Tory case effectively but like his Labour Prime Ministerial predecessors, battling economic storms in the 1970s, his fate will be determined by the success or failure of his policies and not words.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum