Highly significant speeches from leaders have punctuated an otherwise forgettable party conference season. Yesterday in his address David Cameron did Ed Miliband an unlikely favour. He made Miliband's seem deeper and substantial. The Labour leader's address last week was poorly structured and delivered, yet compared with Cameron's it had an argument and was at least an attempt to address the scale of tumultuous change sweeping across Britain. In contrast Cameron's speech was a giddying guided tour around his favourite themes, without much sense of where he was taking us next or why. There were some good bits and naff bits, at times subtle and at other moments the equivalent of being hit on the head with a hammer.
His overwhelming theme was leadership, with a clever riff that linked his own responsibilities to those of the British people who could lead too. Once again he described the Big Society as his mission, a project that is about empowering people and emphatically is not about leadership from the centre. Yet Cameron remains relatively popular as a leader and people look to him and the Government rather than to a big society to get them out of the economic crisis.
The unresolved conundrum about a popular leader telling others to lead was part of a curious patchwork of a speech. A key part of it was a reiteration of George Osborne's arguments on Monday: the debt crisis was caused above all by over-borrowing by governments and it was not possible to borrow our way out of it. Yet the origins were not as straightforward as that. The recklessness of banks was the spark, not high borrowing from governments. Astronomical borrowing from governments followed the collapse of the old financial order. The Coalition's response, a spending cuts programme of unprecedented depth, is one reason why the economy is flat-lining and borrowing remains so high. The neat simplicity of Cameron's argument leads him into awkward places such as the confusion in advance of the speech as to whether he would lecture us all to pay back credit card debts.
Perhaps the unclear advance briefing was a sign of a lack of clarity at the very top about what the message was meant to be. Before long, in the speech that was actually delivered, we had moved on from the economy and were in the supposedly wacky world of EU regulations and health and safety rules, trivial stuff that fills the pages of some reactionary newspapers. Then Cameron pressed the button marked "progressive" by reiterating support for gay marriages, with a very good line about his attitude being determined because he was a Tory and not in spite of being one.
But then he moved on to attack Labour's casino economy, a lightly regulated bonanza for some that he more or less supported at the time. There was a reference to the increased spending on the NHS, but revealingly no attempt to justify the still chaotic NHS reforms.
Copying Tony Blair, who often ignored his main political opponent, Cameron made no mention of Miliband. But part of his speech was an attempt to claim some of Miliband's arguments for himself. He wanted a something-for-something economy and not a something-for-nothing one. Both Cameron and Osborne know the Labour leader is on to something in relation to the distorting consequences of unconstrained capitalism.
Cameron's speech was Blair-like in its construction. The overall theme of leadership was safely apolitical. Who is against good leadership? Within the theme Cameron sought to play the centrists' card, reassuring the many and challenging the few. Whether such a patchwork sown together by a less accomplished performer than Blair is quite what is called for in the current context is less certain. Nimble-footed evasiveness has its place but the rewards for deep thinking and clarity might be greater at such an epoch-making period in global economics.
Cameron's speech ends a subdued party conference season. Politics is an art form and yet there are virtually no political artists in any of the parties, figures who can communicate, frame an argument, master the rhythms of the media, dazzle with personality and conviction, turning all these qualities into defining, thought-through policies. These are epic times and yet reading the guides to fringe meetings at each of the conferences was not an inspiring activity. Mostly the speakers were dull, decent, managerial technocrats. Where are the Heseltines, Portillos, Benns, Foots and many others who used to light up politics, sometimes destructively but always with a compelling and sometimes mesmerising accessibility?
Even so, the week-long ritual provides insights. Nick Clegg apart, the Liberal Democrats have turned their sights on to the Tories and at the very least will claim credit for any seemingly "fair" or "progressive" policy. This will cause growing tension with the Conservatives, but not enough to blow apart the Coalition. There was not a single Liberal Democrat at their gathering calling for the end of the Coalition yet.
Labour's conference was the most significant because Miliband attempted to make a very big move away from the Thatcherite consensus of the last three decades. His essential insight about the profound nature of the change since the financial crisis began in 2008 is right, and bursts with possibility as voters prop up unconstrained markets rather than benefit from them. The Conservative leadership recognises this and pay him the semi-compliment of moving on to the same terrain. But the Labour conference was amateurish as the former special advisers sheltered by the Blair/Brown duopoly surfaced on to the bright lights of the political stage early in their careers. Everything was symptomatic of a party and a leadership not yet ready for the titanic challenges ahead of them.
They have a single comfort. The Conservatives are insecure too, because like the rest of us they are not sure where the economic saga ends. At least Miliband has a theme, which he believes with a passion. Cameron has an alternative idea about a big society, but it comes and goes, even if implementing this vision remains his mission.
Tonally, Cameron is still the one- nation moderniser and an engaging public figure, and yet this conference jettisoned the party's claims to be uniquely green. It opposed the Human Rights Act with preposterous, inaccurate stories about a cat, set its sights again on Europe and supported a reform of the NHS that remains explosive. "The same old Tories" is the most potent line for Miliband, but it is one that will only work if he acquires more authority as a leader. The economy, Miliband's leadership, his agenda-setting ideas, and the NHS will be the big themes in the next 12 months. The conferences made this vividly clear, but in truth, they would have been the overwhelming topics if the gatherings of politicians, journalists and lobbyists in various cordoned-off city centres had never happened.