Leading article: A challenge avoided

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The Conservative gathering in Birmingham this week was expected to be the smoothest of all the annual party conferences. In the end, it turned into the roughest. A ferocious row over ending child benefit payments for top-rate taxpayers has overshadowed all else this week. And that left David Cameron with a considerable job to do when he rose to speak yesterday.

What was needed from the Prime Minister was a compelling argument to justify the benefits change. But, in the end, Mr Cameron chose to skirt around the issue. There was a brief mention of the uproar and a plea for "a new conversation about what fairness means" but nothing specific about the case for eroding the principle of universal benefits. Mr Cameron referenced Margaret Thatcher's "not for turning speech", but in truth this was not a demonstration of strength and resolve from her successor.

Instead, Mr Cameron decided to change the subject. There were some attacks on Labour to signal to the party that, despite the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, his heart still beats on the right. But the thrust of the speech was a plea for more civic engagement, a request for the British public to embrace the spirit of his "Big Society" idea. Mr Cameron echoed Lord Kitchener, arguing, "your country needs you". And he implored the public to ignore the "cynics and defeatists" who say that his idea is simply a gimmick, or worse, cynical cover for public spending cuts. This was another Conservative attempt, following George Osborne's upbeat speech, to reclaim the "optimist" label that Ed Miliband grabbed last week for Labour.

To this extent it was shrewd politics. And there is much that is attractive about the sentiment underlying Mr Cameron's push for a stronger civic society. He makes a compelling argument that Britons would be happier if they were more closely involved in the delivery of local public services and that government would be more effective if more power were put in the hands of the public. And Mr Cameron expressed his case with a passion that seems born of genuine conviction.

But the problems lie in the detail. We already have a developed voluntary sector in Britain, made up of charities and other non-profit social organisations. But unlike Mr Cameron those bodies are decidedly pessimistic about the immediate future. Indeed, they fear that their funding is going to be cut severely as public spending, particularly by local councils, is squeezed by the Coalition. There is a symbiosis between society and the state that the Prime Minister does not seem to appreciate. Optimism is all very well, but optimism when faced with sums that do not add up is nothing to be proud of.

Furthermore, Mr Cameron's soaring rhetoric does not live up to the reality of his own administration. In his peroration, he implored Britons to "come together... let's work together". But this week has shown that Mr Cameron himself does not even work all that closely with his own front bench. Key ministers, including the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, were not informed about the decision on child benefit until it was announced. Mr Cameron heralded "a new kind of government". But this week's headline-chasing shambles resembles nothing so much as the worst of the New Labour era, with hasty decisions made and spun by a small coterie around the Prime Minister.

Emotional uplift has its place in politics, particularly at a party conference. And Mr Cameron no doubt managed to send off most delegates in calmer spirits and more optimistic mood. But this week has shown that he is going to need to pay much closer attention to the prosaic detail of government if this Coalition is to survive the trials to come.

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