Steve Richards: For the Tories, as for Labour, this has been a conference that has failed to move them on

One lesson is that Cameron should aim to make one good speech instead of two mediocre ones
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The Independent Online

On Sunday, David Cameron delivered a vacuous speech that flowed and was easy on the ear. Yesterday he made a more substantial address, but the speech was flat and without direction.

One obvious lesson is that Cameron should aim to make one good speech instead of two mediocre ones. Another is that, although he is copying much of Tony Blair's approach from the mid-1990s, he lacks Blair's speech-making skills.

Blair always knew what overall message he wanted to convey in a speech. Yesterday, Cameron danced awkwardly around two apparently conflicting themes, a defence of the state in the form of his support for the NHS and public investment, while repeating constantly that there is such a thing as society but it is not the same as the state. Which is the overwhelming message: that the Conservatives must have a more benevolent view of the state, or less of one?

Once more, I found myself agreeing with one assertion and then disagreeing with the next. On the NHS, Cameron said: "It is a symbol of our collective will, of social solidarity." That sounded good. But later he stated: "It is an emotional connection that binds our country together."

What does that mean? Presumably this is a reference to the Conservatives' new theme of social responsibility, in which the state withdraws and altruistic individuals fill the void. The NHS would never have sprung from such an ethos. No doubt in a long seminar the apparent contradictions could be reconciled. In a speech it is more difficult.

But Labour should be far from complacent. The individual components of Cameron's speech were more significant than the whole. In each section, Cameron removed a few of the negatives that have made the Conservatives unelectable for a decade.

There was nothing on Europe and immigration, the ugly themes that shaped their election campaigns in 1997 and 2001. He spoke candidly, although vaguely, about the challenges that must be met on the green agenda. In an overlong section about the importance of marriage, he stressed that he was also referring to civil partnerships, and got qualified applause as he did so. Arguably, that moment was of more symbolic value for the Conservatives than the entire speech.

He repeated that economic stability rather than tax cuts was his priority. Cleverly, he established some distance from Blair's uncritical support for the US, but did so in a way that gave him the space to have the same approach to foreign policy. The Conservatives have not changed anywhere near as much as they claim, but they will be harder to beat at the next election than the previous three.

Probably Cameron will get better as a speech maker too. At the moment he is still too influenced by Blair. Yesterday's speech was constructed in a similar way to Blair's speeches, but without the oratory and narrative drive. There were sentences without verbs, self-deprecating jokes, a section where the successes of political opponents are acknowledged, sentences that appear to be dramatic commitments, but are not so dramatic on second reading.

Cameron should try to speak next time with his own authentic voice and leave his obsession with Blair behind. Look at Wilson, Thatcher and Blair. Election winners have their own voice.

But more than most, this conference season will soon fade in memories, a puny prelude before the main performance begins with the departure of Blair. The context was always going to be awkward for the two bigger parties and both have more or less navigated the hurdles.

A senior Conservative, part of the Cameron inner circle, pointed out to me before yesterday's speech that for the main opposition party, the second conference in the political cycle is always the most problematic. The gathering after a general election defeat is usually a highly charged post mortem. The third conference is when the party seeks definition with debates about policies. The fourth is usually the big pre-election gathering. What to do about the second in the cycle, with no election past or future in sight and no detailed policies to debate?

Move back a week to Labour's conference in Manchester. I travelled up with a senior adviser of a cabinet minister. He argued that it would be better if their conference did not take place at all. He knew that a single issue would dominate the gathering, the seething tensions over the leadership. Like many travelling to Manchester he was anticipating a catastrophe.

For different reasons, both parties could have done without a conference this year. The Conservatives had to convey a sense of change for a few days without any policies or the drama of a looming general election, or even a leadership crisis, usually an annual event at their conference. Labour had to get through its gathering without a blazing public fight at the top.

On this limited basis, the parties have climbed over their awkward hurdles. The Conservative conference was a slightly odd but reasonably successful experiment, almost as a much a discursive chat show as a political event. Even so, they are still a long way from being a disciplined machine in the way that Labour was in the mid 1990s.

The leadership claims that tax cuts are their long- term objective and yet I continue to hear promises of spending increases. In recent days, leading Tories have spoken about the need to build more prisons, implied that they would increase spending on defence and child care. Cameron must have spent a few billion more yesterday as he declared "Blair-like" that he wanted to address the "people's priorities", including child care, flexible working and better state schools. At this stage in Labour's recovery, no shadow cabinet member could utter a word that implied a spending increase.

Last week Labour also managed to climb over the hurdles. The tensions were largely beneath the surface. Yet the Conference ended with ultra Blairites briefing anyone that would listen that Brown was unelectable, declarations that risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Predictably, politics is more or less as it was before the conference season opened. Labour's increasingly comical desire for a smooth transition will be tested further in the coming months. Blair is in the odd position of having delivered his farewell speech and is now back at his desk. Labour MPs wonder nervously what position their party will be in next summer, as they did last month. Difficult elections loom next year.

Meanwhile, the contradictions and gaps in the new-look Conservatives are still apparent and will need to be resolved over the next year. Their conference has shed little light over how they will do so.

This conference season took place in an odd political limbo. Next year they will matter much more.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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