David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party conference yesterday was not one that will go down in the annals. Its presentation was merely passable, its reception was no better than satisfactory, and its contents were largely dull. It was, however, well-suited to its purpose.
The audience, after all, was not so much the delegates in the hall as the electorate beyond. And the central message – Britain is recovering from the financial crisis but we need more time to “finish the job” – is arguably delivered better by statesman-like tedium than a blizzard of policy initiatives. Particularly when the speaker is a Tory leader trying to convince voters that Labour’s alternative risks all.
In fact, although his team denies it, the Prime Minister’s speech was a toe-to-toe response to Ed Miliband’s headline-grabbing performance at his own conference last week. Not because Mr Cameron answered the question about falling living standards posed by his Labour counterpart. He did not. What he did do, however, is use much of his time on the podium to tear strips off Labour, not only for the “mess” left by the last government but also for the “1970s-style socialism” proposed by a future one. Mr Miliband is no longer a figure of fun to be derided for his weakness; he has become the would-be custodian of a “land of despair”.
The aim is clear. Judging Labour to have lurched to the left, Mr Cameron is tilting hard at the centre. Hugging huskies or uncomfortably liberal policies such as gay marriage are no longer necessary. Faced with what he perceives to be a predictable opponent, a conventional Conservative rebuttal – complete with encomiums about the greatness of Britain, stirring talk of effort rewarded, and promises of economic rectitude – will suffice. Rank-and-file Tories may be fretting about the UK Independence Party; but their leader, spying a chance to take over the vacated middle ground, hopes that the problems to his right will take care of themselves.
For all its familiarity, much of Mr Cameron’s analysis was convincingly put. He is right that profit is not a dirty word; and it is, indeed, business, not government, that creates jobs. But it is here that his speech’s sole novelty – and its only iota of policy – comes in.