Bruce Anderson: All jokes aside, Cameron speech was seriously good

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The Independent Online

It was a formidable speech, which demonstrated David Cameron's command of his party, and of British politics. Up to now, his conference speeches have been good, in the way that one would expect of an effective Leader of the Opposition. But this was different. This was prime ministerial.

Mr Cameron has been under no illusions. He is aware that his lead in the polls owes far more to Labour negatives than to Tory positives. Many people like him. They credit him with decency. But they were less sure whether he had depth. Yesterday's performance was intended to be a depth charge, and it was a successful one.

It also deserves a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Although there was scorn, effectively deployed, there was not a single joke: a rare, if not unique, event in a leader's party conference text. Most leaders feel the need for a bit of knock-about at their opponents' expense, to give the troops a good laugh. In Manchester, there were no laughs. Mr Cameron's primary focus was the country, not his party. He sensed a serious, indeed sombre, national mood.

There were no concessions to his audience's prejudices. He repeated George Osborne's point that it would not be possible for an incoming Tory government to abolish Labour's 50p tax rate. He complimented Labour on introducing civil partnerships and reaffirmed his commitment to protect the foreign aid budget. He made it clear that the Tories' election manifesto would respond to the national emergency, but would also reflect his own core values.

"I am not a complicated person," he told the delegates. His politics were rooted in family, community, country – and social generosity. "I want every child to have the chances I had. That's why I'm standing here." There were a couple of references to his dead son, Ivan, and one to his wife, Samantha. Although this might strike some sceptics as sentimental, David Cameron was merely trying to explain the basis of his values.

Those also derive from a sense of Britishness, drawing on the heritage of the past in order to cope with the challenges of the future. His section on the environment was a particularly skilful example of harmonisation. "To be British is to have an instinctive love of the countryside and the natural world." Every Tory would agree with that.

But Mr Cameron then insisted that anyone who valued the countryside ought to be alarmed about climate change. There was some consolation for Tory sceptics: the promise of green technologies. There should be money to be made out of those.

There was bound to be a major drafting complexity. By temperament, Mr Cameron is better at optimism than at pessimism. To him, cheerfulness comes easily. But the country is like a worried patient in the doctor's waiting room, braced for bad news. Mr Cameron knew that it would be absurd to offer facile reassurance. The cure would be painful; the recovery, slow. Yet man cannot live by bad news alone. There had to be a sense that things would eventually get better. He tried to offer this. "There is a steep climb ahead. But the view from the summit will be worth it."

By the time the Tories meet in Birmingham next year, Mr Cameron will have made his attempt on the electoral summit. Unlike many exuberant constituency Tories – and a lot of gloomy Labour MPs – he is taking nothing for granted. But this speech should have added to his political momentum. He offered the voters honesty and realism, plus the prospect of hope. That is the message and the tone of voice to inspire confidence and trust. It was a considerable performance.

Cameron's speech: Our experts' opinion

Lynne Franks PR Guru

The delivery was flat, but it was a very well-constructed speech. Unlike Brown, Cameron got better as he went on. He looked directly into the camera more than Brown – an important detail – and looked like a Prime Minister in waiting.

Neil Sherlock Former speechwriter to Paddy Ashdown

It was a sober and rather low-key speech, traditional in terms of Tory themes – especially railing against "big government". The question over the amount of detail contained remains.

Stephen Alambritis Federation of Small Businesses

There are concerns over how he will deal with the economy. There was a sense he will start making cuts straight away, but we need schemes like scrappage and delays in paying tax to continue.

Andrew Hawkins Chief executive of Comres, opinion Pollsters

The speech was short on detail, but had plenty of the emotion that Gordon Brown struggles to convey. His anger and optimism was reminiscent of Tony Blair's 1996 conference speech.

Angela Knight Chief executive, British Bankers Association

There was no bank bashing, and he did go into issues of creating a simpler and stable tax policy, which we were keen to see. But, overall, this was a speech on his philosophy, not on policy.

Sheila Gunn John Major's personal press adviser

Cameron gave a clear idea of what drives him, delivering a more personal speech than we have heard before and sketching out his vision of Britain under a Tory government. He delivered.