John Rentoul: Cameron's eyeballs are not for burning

In 2007, the joke was that his memorised conference speech had been lasered inside his eyes. There'll be few theatrics this time

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The Independent Online

Every year, we have the rituals of the party conference season. One is the leader's "make or break speech". So far, this ritual has been little observed. Only one journalist has said that a leader has to "give the speech of his life", or words to that effect. It was Benedict Brogan, deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph, of David Cameron's speech. But even that was a knowing, post-modern reference: "It is traditional at this point to say that the leader's speech to conference is make or break, the most important of his career." And he went on to say that they are all important, "but what the Prime Minister says next month matters particularly".

The reason he gave, however, immediately contradicted his argument: "His party and his Government are no longer quite sure what he stands for or what he wants." To which the obvious answer would be: keep them in suspense for as long as you can. The cloudiness about whether Cameron believes in anything, and if so what, is one of his greatest strengths.

So, no, the Prime Minister's forthcoming hour-long oration is not the speech of his life. He has already given two of those, and both at party conferences. One was a walk-and-talk for 10 minutes with no notes, which secured him the leadership in 2005. The other was a ... well, you get the idea, only this one was an hour long, and memorised so well that I quoted someone at the time who said that the text must have been inscribed by new laser technology on the inside of Cameron's eyeballs. That was in 2007, when Gordon Brown was dithering about calling an election, and the combination of Cameron's steadiness, George Osborne's inheritance tax plan in his speech the previous day, and an opinion poll of marginal seats forced Brown into a humiliating show of cowardice.

Nor will Tuesday's be the speech of Nick Clegg's life. Despite all the speculation at the time of the AV referendum, one of the least memorable events of this year, that Clegg would be in trouble if he could not stand before his conference and proclaim that they had changed the voting system (I may have written that myself), Liberal Democrats seem to care almost as little about it as the rest of the nation. The mood of its members is surprisingly buoyant for a party heading for disaster in 2015, because they believe the right-wing Tory propaganda that Clegg has too much power, and because they really do believe in working with other parties as a good in itself.

Nor will next week's be the speech of Ed Miliband's life. His position is secure, and his challenge is to be noticed: a guarantee of mediocrity.

The fact is that most party conference speeches do not matter very much. Apart from Cameron's important ones in 2005 and 2007, we have to go back to 1994 and Tony Blair's veiled reference to rewriting Labour's constitution to find a speech that changed anything. I was there and was annoyed (a) because I had been standing up for the whole speech, having come into the hall late, (b) because the last few pages of my copy of the text were missing, which I thought was a mistake but turned out to have been deliberate, so that delegates would not be tipped off to boo when he got to the important bit, and (c) because, although I thought the words were odd (about a statement of objectives to "take its place in our constitution"), I did not realise what Blair meant until I saw Arthur Scargill condemning it to television camera and lights at the side of the hall while the standing ovation was still going on.

You could say that Iain Duncan Smith's 17 orchestrated standing ovations in 2003 was a harbinger of his end, but not since 1985, and Neil Kinnock's denunciation of Militant, have party conferences, or the speeches given there, mattered consistently. Before then, we had the drama of the creation of the SDP out of Labour's civil war, and Margaret Thatcher's rebuttal of "the wets" with her "the lady's not for turning" in 1980.

With the creation of the SDP came the professionalisation of politics and a loss of innocence. It was in 1984 that Max Atkinson, the rhetorician, trained a novice speaker to address the SDP conference. By using his "clap-traps" of three-part lists and two-part contrasts, he crafted a speech that brought the conference to its feet. Reporters became more adept, and possibly more superficial, in response. At a Tory conference in Blackpool in the 1990s Colin Brown, my colleague at The Independent, nipped out to Dixons to buy a sound meter, so that we could give a decibel count for each speech's applause.

The other ritual of this time of year is the article saying that party conferences ought to be abolished. This year, it was written (first) by Deborah Mattinson, who was Gordon Brown's pollster until she found that she was Talking to a Brick Wall (the title of her very good book). She said last week: "Once it had a simple role as a decision-making forum but now it's a confused muddle between activists' rally, senior stakeholder networking and campaigning to external audiences. Small wonder, then, that it succeeds in doing none of these things very well, and the last of them really rather badly."

She is right. As a chance to put the party's message on show, party conferences are increasingly useless. In the old days, when there were only four TV channels (before 1997), the BBC used to put live coverage on one of them. Even then, main news coverage would be hijacked by stories such as Eurosceptic fringe meetings at Tory conference.

Mattinson says that party conferences do more harm than good, because of the time and expense lavished on that one week by the political classes. She is right about that, too. Unfortunately, the chance of a party leader being brave enough to say, "We're going to spend the money on political education and voluntary work for unemployed young people instead," is nil.