John Rentoul: Cameron's words decoded

Between the lines of the Prime Minister's conference speech

It is an honour and a privilege to stand here, before the party I lead, before the country I love, as the Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

[A rather weak opening gambit, the standard wording of a thousand wedding speeches, but it allowed him to tell his audience they had achieved the objective of one of their own in No 10, never mind their Coalition partners.]

We will always pursue British interests. But there are some red lines we must never cross. Like the sight of the man responsible for the Lockerbie bombing set free to get a hero's welcome in Tripoli... Nothing like that must happen again.

[Odd echo of Ed Miliband's speech last week, condemning things that happened under the Labour government as "wrong" – in this case a decision of the devolved Scottish executive that Cameron could not have prevented had he been prime minister.]

Labour centralised too much and told people they could fix every problem. But it was the rest of us who swallowed it, hoping that if the Government took care of things, perhaps we wouldn't have to... "I've paid my taxes, the state will look after everything."

[Another curious line that comes close to blaming the voters.]

I got a letter from a six-year-old girl called Niamh with a pound coin stuck to it. And there was a note from her mum which said: "Dear Mr Cameron, after hearing about the budget, Niamh wanted to send you her tooth fairy money to help." There we are, George – nearly there.

[Another strange decision: Cameron does real-life anecdotes well, but what was the point? Six-year-olds don't understand big numbers? George Osborne believes in the tooth fairy?]

The cynics and the defeatists will say it can't be done, that we're stuck in some inevitable decline. But that's what they said in the Seventies. They were wrong then – and we'll prove them wrong again.

[A standard rhetorical device: saying what the big society is not, before moving on to the positive definition. Unfortunately, the positive definition was content free, and Cameron had to ad lib a "we can" to elicit applause.]

I know how anxious people are. "Yes," they say, "of course we need to cut spending. But do we have to cut now, and by this much? Isn't there another way?" I wish there was. But I tell you: there is no other responsible way.

[Introduced the central argument of the economic section of the speech, and fell completely flat. Everyone in the hall knew there is another way, which Cameron is about to dissect; he paused, apparently expecting applause, but hadn't yet earned it.]

I tell you what: these Labour politicians, who nearly bankrupted our country, who left a legacy of debts and cuts, who are still in denial about the disaster they created. They must not be allowed anywhere near our economy, ever, ever again.

[It was telling that he was finally and loudly applauded not for the detailed argument for cutting early and deep, but for a nakedly partisan attack on Labour for leaving the public finances in such a mess.]

Ed Balls, the man who used to be in charge of education... said one of the dangers of our schools policy was that it would create "winners". Winners? We can't have that. The danger that your child might go to school and turn out to be a winner. Anti aspiration. Anti success. Anti parents who want the best for their children. What an unbelievable attitude from this Labour generation.

[The only Labour MP mentioned by name was Ed Balls, half-respected and half-despised by Tories; a tactical device to put pressure on Ed Miliband as he decides his Shadow Cabinet with a line about "this Labour generation".]

Mine is not just a vision of a more powerful country. It is a vision of a more powerful people.

[Another attempt to define the "big society spirit", turning a familiar and already-rather-discredited sound bite, "we are all in this together", into two new sound bites, "society is not a spectator sport" and "this is your country – it's time to step up and own it", which is like a jolly sports teacher trying to encourage pupils who hate games.]

I know the British people and they are not passengers – they are drivers. I've seen the courage of our soldiers, the spirit of our entrepreneurs, the patience of our teachers, the dedication of our doctors, the compassion of our care workers, the wisdom of our elderly, the love of our parents, the hopes of our children. So come on – let's pull together. Let's come together. Let's work, together, in the national interest.

[Finally brings together the themes of the speech with "it takes two" – reinforced by Marvin Gaye on the loudspeakers after he finished – referring to the Coalition but also to the idea of Government and people working together, the people taking responsibility and not expecting Government to do it for them, building up to the concluding words, repeating the slogan displayed behind him.]