Monday 2 October 2006
Bruce Anderson: Leader's speeches are important, but they only lay the foundations for future policies
Considered purely as rhetoric, it was not as fine a speech as Tony Blair's. In the hall there were fewer tears. When Mr Blair started off, he was facing a partially hostile audience. By the time he had finished, the hostility was gone - for about 15 minutes.
In that regard, David Cameron had an easier task. He had a friendly audience who were delighted by what he said and will stay delighted. There is a further point: another crucial difference between the Cameron speech and the Blair speech. David Cameron's speech was rooted in reality.
In one important passage, he tried to deal with some of his Tory critics: "We must learn from Labour's big mistake", he told his party. "When Tony Blair won his first election, he had only one clear purpose: to win a second term ... back in 1997, he had no proper plan."
David Cameron believes in planning. If his party is to be condemned to opposition, there is at least one comfort. Oppositions have time to think; to work out what they would do if they won the election. Mr Cameron is determined that his Conservative government will not take office unprepared for the challenges of office.
First, however, there are the challenges of opposition. The trouble in politics, as Chris Patten once said, is that as soon as you take a trick in diamonds, you find that hearts have become trumps. David Cameron is now discovering the truth of that dictum. Tory leaders of the opposition cannot expect to receive much gratitude; their followers are too impatient. They are only interested in future success, not past achievements.
David Cameron has certainly had a good year. There was back-handed evidence for that in Saturday's papers. An opinion poll - out of line with all other recent ones - showed that Tory support had fallen to place it equal with Labour. This was widely reported as a pre-conference blow to Mr Cameron. But think back a year; in those days, the Tories would have been delighted if any poll had shown them doing that well.
In only a few months, Mr Cameron has made his party exciting and electable, and there is no sign that he is running out of either ideas or enthusiasm. One point has always struck me about Mr Cameron and his team. It is very hard to tell them anything. This is not because they do not listen. It is merely that they have already thought about the point one is making.
From the outset, the new leader has stuck to a bold strategy. By highlighting new policy themes, especially the environment and public services, he has persuaded a large number of voters to re-assess the Conservative Party. While doing so he has been prepared to bewilder and disappoint some of his own supporters, who would prefer their leaders to talk about crime, Europe and taxes. But Mr Cameron has not only kept his nerve when criticised. He has actually seemed to relish the attacks.
Now there may be a problem. His strategy has some of the defects of its qualities. In some quarters there is an impression that although David Cameron is likeable he is insubstantial; that he is too ridden by class guilt to be able to understand what real people actually want.
Only one element of that is true: the likeability. David Cameron is an immensely likable fellow. But there is nothing insipid about the man. He has a core of steel. He has spent a great deal of time thinking through his values, his political beliefs and his attitude to public service. In his speech to the Tory conference, Senator John McCain spoke of "honesty, courage and resolve" as the qualities that a leader should possess. Unlike the Senator - John McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and was abominably treated - David Cameron has not yet been tested in the fire. But none of his friends doubt that he can pass the McCain test. Nor does he do class guilt. Though his family is not poor, they have worked for their money. He sees nothing to apologise for in that.
As for real people's wishes, he has thought about a problem which always defeated Margaret Thatcher. All post-war Tory governments have been committed to high-quality public services. They have demonstrated this by substantial increases in spending. Back in the 1970s, when Tories still had to deal with socialism, Mrs Thatcher would often argue that only a successful capitalist economy could create the revenues to fund pensions, health and education. But she never received any credit for her efforts. For most of the public, hers was the party of cuts.
David Cameron is determined to rebut that lie, for good. When it comes to public services, Mr Cameron has a simple philosophy. He believes that only the best will do: that the British people are entitled to world-class standards of health and education. The day of the bog-standard comprehensive must end.
But not every Tory is convinced. Some of those in the hall were less worried about the cuts charge than about the absence of a pledge on tax cuts. Some Thatcherite ultras are trying to turn this into a test of their leader's virility. Mr Cameron's critics ought to remember that Margaret Thatcher did not promise tax cuts in 1979. She merely said that some of the burden of tax ought to be shifted from direct to indirect taxation. No responsible opposition could or should do much more than that. It would be folly to start drafting the 2009 budget in 2006, or to commit an incoming Tory government to cut tax, irrespective of the economic circumstances.
If David Cameron has not cut taxation as a proportion of national income by the end if his first term, he will be disappointed. But he would see no point whatsoever in irresponsible tax cuts which merely led to an increase in interest rates.
In the old days, the Conservative leader made one speech. That might seem enough of a burden. But yesterday's performance was only the overture. Mr Cameron and his staff were happy with the outcome - and deservedly so. But they have locked themselves into further long nights of drafting before the conference is over. Not only that, a good overture demands a great opera. Wednesday's speech is the main one, so it will have to be even better; not an easy task.
David Cameron is aware that with every major speech he has to move into new territory. This week, the task is to persuade the voters that his Tory party is not just caring and likeable but has real weight. He has to do this without rushing into premature policy commitments.
Mr Cameron compared the process of policy formation to building a house. First, you must lay sound foundations: something the Blair government never achieved. Only after the foundations are secure can you start thinking about bricks. The aim is to use this week to create foundations which will attract potential purchasers.
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