Alan Watkins: Mr Cameron cuts a lonely figure

If he means to form a government, the Conservative leader has few big guns to choose from
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Mr David Cameron's advisers, or it may have been Mr Cameron himself, decided to hold the party conference in Manchester, or so I read in the papers. That was because it was in the North-west, where there are numerous seats to be won by the Tories or, I suppose, lost.

For myself, I fail to understand why holding a party conference in a particular part of the country should make any great difference to the outcome of the general election in nine months' time. If anything, I suspect, the inconvenience to the inhabitants of the city and the surrounding areas would outweigh the profits to be made from hotels, bars and boarding houses. In any case, if the Tories desperately want to come to the North-west (as people from London call it), what is wrong with Blackpool? I can tell you: there is a lot wrong with Blackpool. Happily, my days of trips to the seaside are over, and we can pass on to the Conservatives.

The odd thing about Mr Cameron's speech on Thursday was that it seemed a much better speech when excerpts of it were shown on the early evening news bulletins than it did when the full version was broadcast earlier in the day. The comment immediately afterwards was to the effect that, while Mr Cameron had been perfectly competent, his speech had not been anything to become overexcited about.

Indeed, these same observers agreed that the television version transmitted to the country was more powerful than what the audience had heard and seen in the hall. (I know some sports reporters watch a match on television while following the movement on the pitch.)

Most people do not have the time or the inclination to take an hour off after lunch to listen to a politician's speech. The accepted version is what is shown on the television news later in the day, though not too much later. The normally perceptive Newsnight, for instance, had, in the absence of Mr Jeremy Paxman, run out of puff. The poor things had been at it at the party conferences for three whole weeks, so they cannot be blamed too strenuously if they did not find anything very new to say. Still, they should have done better with Mr Cameron.

The impression created by the earlier news programmes had been that Mr Cameron was the next prime minister, making a prime ministerial speech. It owed almost everything to the perception of Mr Cameron, very little to the content of the speech. It was chiefly what the late Conor Cruise O'Brien once happily called "wordzak".

Of two genuine standing ovations in the course of the speech, one was about the unfortunate prevalence of poverty, the other about our boys in Afghanistan. I do not know whether the announcement of Sir Richard Dannatt's appointment – to being an adviser to the Conservative Party, to a seat in the House of Lords and to a position in the new government – was intended to form part of his speech.

In any case, earlier in the week, Mr Chris Grayling, the shadow Home Secretary, made a mess of things. He had got the right general, but the wrong party: he had thought Sir Richard would be joining or, at least, giving his support to Labour.

Quite apart from the constitutional propriety of recently serving officers lending their support to political parties (a question which never seemed to bother Labour; witness the appointment of Lord West), there was

the sheer cheek of Mr Cameron's appointment of a new government before he had taken the preliminary precaution of winning a general election.

As we are about it, what merits has Mr Grayling? His immediate predecessor had been Mr Dominic Grieve, now shadow Justice Secretary. Mr Grieve is a sharp lawyer who would make a perfectly acceptable attorney general in a Tory government. Originally he had succeeded Mr David Davis as shadow Home Secretary who had destroyed his career by winning a by-election, and who now says he would like a job back, though it would have to be a big one.

Clearly, Mr Cameron does not have too many people around with whom to play. Or he may have quite enough people, but they are the wrong ones.

Thus Mr Iain Duncan Smith is all set to eliminate poverty. This is what Mr Cameron told us in the section of his speech which drew the other standing ovation. Mr Cameron told us that the marginal rate of income tax on the lowest earners was 96 per cent. I tried to work it out. The running commentary provided by the BBC at the bottom of the screen proved unhelpful; indeed, a complete and absolute blank.

A couple of my colleagues commentating afterwards proved more helpful, though not much. Mr Cameron was, it seemed, referring to the notorious "benefits trap", by which persons receiving certain benefits did not find it worth their while to do any paid work. In this case, one might have thought, Mr Cameron would better have addressed his concerns not to Mr Duncan Smith but to Mr George Osborne.

Why, in that event, does Mr Osborne not promise to take a certain number of earners straight out of income tax, as Dr Vince Cable and the Liberal Democrats say (or I think they still say)? Mr Osborne prefers to go for some Churchillian rhetoric. He is trying to shed his identity as the Cad of the Remove and to acquire the patina of a Good Influence instead.

The City is apparently impressed; or perhaps not. There are conflicting or, anyway, disparate reports. For the past 80 years, the greatest hardship among the people has been most warmly applauded by the bankers. There are still those who hanker after Mr William Hague at the Treasury; even those who would welcome the return of Mr Kenneth Clarke. But Mr Osborne is still the bosses' friend.

In the past year, the conviction has solidified that the Tories are going to form the next government. There is no great excitement on behalf of Mr Cameron such as there was for Harold Wilson in 1964 or Tony Blair in 1997. There was astonishment when Edward Heath won in 1970, slightly less when John Major won in 1992. Margaret Thatcher won comfortably in 1979, but, catastrophic though James Callaghan's last year of office had been, there were still those who thought wise old Jim would pull through.

Despite the best endeavours of Lord Mandelson and a few others – though I find it difficult to name them – it would be hard for Labour to express any such relative confidence today. What was striking in Manchester was that the Tories did not sound any too confident themselves.

One interpretation was that they did not want to sound what is called "triumphalist". The word was recalled to life in a newspaper column by my old friend Peregrine Worsthorne in relation to Mrs Thatcher, and was uttered as a warning to the Conservatives. There was no danger of that last week. There was not even a statutory villain of the week.

I have seen them all: Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill, the innocuous Bernie Grant, Frank Cousins and, the greatest of them all, Aneurin Bevan. Labour villains are now in short supply. Perhaps there are no more of them; perhaps the Tories are now completely confident; or perhaps the Tories do not really know what to do next.