Alan Watkins: Mr Cameron plays it safe... for now

The Tory leader's speeches at party conference were all taken from the 'Daily Mail' bumper fun book
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The Independent Online

In one of the stories, Sherlock Holmes says to Dr Watson: "I have the British Treasury behind me." National Savings did not begin before the 20th century. Even so, the great detective would surely have been surprised to learn that accounts in the Post Office were operated by a bank in Ireland. I was certainly surprised by it myself, till I read about it in the papers last week.

Presumably the savings were guaranteed by HM Government, even though the accounts were held in Ireland. With last week's unlimited guarantees to the Irish banks by the government of Ireland, thus is assurance made doubly sure, or so it is devoutly hoped. Mr Gordon Brown's government began by maintaining that a £35,000 limit on guaranteed deposits was enough, or what the honest citizen was going to get; then the limit was raised to £50,000, last Friday, beginning on Tuesday, for Mr Alistair Darling had not been entirely clear about the timing; then there was talk of unlimited guarantees all round.

We were told in London (it was in Thursday's Independent) that the French government was going to follow the Irish. But on the previous evening the French finance minister had said to Mr Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight that responsible countries could not simply take unilateral action, just like that – though in practice France has often behaved in precisely that fashion – and even Mr Paxman fell untypically silent.

The Conservatives were always going to have a difficult conference. What all three parties chose to do this year was to curtail them drastically. There has been a slow but irregular decline from the 1960s to some time in the 1990s. It took in the dominant figures of the era, from Harold Wilson to Margaret Thatcher, with Tony Blair presiding over the last phase by which time it was the Tony Blair show rather than the Labour conference. The most consistent performer, year after year, was Michael Foot.

For the Conservatives, until his death in 1970, it was Iain Macleod, rivalled by Quintin Hogg. For a whole decade, Michael Heseltine did his annual turn by the seaside. Nor should we forget the Liberal leaders Jo Grimond, David Steel and Jeremy Thorpe. The last has been expunged from history more ruthlessly than any leader since Boris Yeltsin, whose failings were certainly different from those of Mr Thorpe.

In those days, conferences were much longer. The Liberal Assembly (as the conference was then called) at Edinburgh in 1968 lasted from the preliminary group meetings of the Saturday and Sunday to the following Saturday. They must all have been mad. The Labour conference would assemble on the Sunday and carry on throughout the week. Wilson would make two speeches, on the Tuesday and the Wednesday. Edward Heath, as Leader of the Opposition, imitated this practice. The final speech by the leader traditionally took place on the Saturday afternoon, the most awkward part of the week for those of us with sporting interests.

The spot was shifted to Friday afternoon, then to the morning, then to Thursday. And last week Mr David Cameron addressed us on Wednesday afternoon. Mr George Osborne could just as well have spoken to us in the morning and Mr Cameron in the afternoon. We could all have gone quietly home without wasting our substance on those plastic beakers of awful coffee which now seem inseparable from political occasions.

Mr Cameron did not exactly make

three speeches. Rather, he intervened on three occasions. On the first two of these contributions he contrived to give the impression that he was on the Government's side, without making any promises to vote Labour or to join the Cabinet, should Mr Brown make him the offer. He was not even suggesting Dr Vince Cable as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was leader of the patriotic party: that was Mr Cameron's policy for the duration of the conference.

Next to his country, he loved Mrs Cameron: or perhaps it was the other way about. Never, indeed, had I observed a Tory leader put up such a public show of kissing, hugging, stroking and, well, touching, as if they were expecting an addition to the Cameron family. It is none of my business, but you can hardly help noticing these things.

Neither Mr Cameron nor Mr Osborne on the Monday had the first idea of what to do about the financial crisis. What the precise guarantees should be for cash in the bank, whether such guarantees should quell panic, or produce precisely the reverse effect: these questions remain undiscussed by the Tories.

It was a former Tory Chancellor, Nigel Lawson from 1983 to 1989, who doubted the wisdom of allowing building societies to turn themselves into banks. Building societies were owned by their members, banks by their shareholders: they had different functions to fulfil and different regulations to observe. Alas, he allowed himself to be bullied by Mrs Thatcher, much as she rode roughly over him on the poll tax, while in turn he mortified the lady by shadowing the German mark.

All that is now forgotten accept by a few old lags such as Lord Lawson and myself. What was lacking was not so much a set of proposals, what politicians call "policy", as, rather, an account of how we came to land ourselves in this mess over the past year and more. There would have been no need for a partisan attack. A simple exposition would have sufficed.

The villain of the piece would naturally have been Mr Brown. After all, he had been in charge of the nation's finances throughout this entire period of 11 years, including his most recent spell as First Lord of the Treasury. The panorama would have had to take in the City's huge salaries, undeserved bonuses, bogus accounting inside and outside government, the culture that insured that it was always someone else who was paying the bill. The Tories would not simply be attacking Mr Brown but their own party as well.

Mr Cameron accordingly chose to play safe, slightly safer than did Mr Osborne, though this was more a matter of tone, for Mr Osborne has a natural curl of the lip without having to make any great effort. The spectator would have taken away only two clear promises: one, that there would not be any rise in council taxes for two years; and the other, that every single patient in a National Health Service hospital would have his or her own room.

To accomplish this within the lifetime of even two Conservative administrations would require Mr Cameron to rebuild every public hospital in the country, and keeping taxes fixed would mean additional subventions from central government or cuts in services decreed by the Government. In either case, there would be less local autonomy, which might or might not be a good idea – local option is now a matter of simple dogma in all three parties – but it would certainly be contrary to Tory policy.

As things were, Mr Cameron chose to stick to the Daily Mail bumper fun book of politically correct idiocies by public officials in obscure bodies. It served him well last week, and it can be brought out on numerous occasions till he is called to office as some future time.