If the test for David Cameron yesterday was to look competent, non-triumphant and prime ministerial, he passed it. Unlike previous conference speeches from the Conservative leader, this was essentially an exercise in playing it safe. There was no showmanship, no surprises. What Mr Cameron sought to do was draw together the various policies of his party and to present an ideologically coherent programme for government to the country.
There are certainly things to welcome in that programme, not least the acceptance of key planks of Labour's progressive legacy, from civil partnerships to the minimum wage. Mr Cameron's commitment to a reformed NHS and greater competition in the schools system are evidence of serious intent to drive radical improvements in the delivery of public services. And, in an indication of how Mr Cameron has succeeded in shifting the outlook of his party, he even managed to get delegates to applaud enthusiastically a pledge to reduce poverty.
But doubts remain about aspects of Mr Cameron's approach. Though the emphasis on encouraging personal responsibility in the speech was laudable, it is easy to see Mr Cameron's rhetoric on "big government" leading his party down some blind alleys. In some ways it has already done so. The Tory fixation on cutting the budget deficit as soon as possible, for instance, is dangerous. The budget deficit will indeed need to be reduced. And it is responsible for politicians to lay out clear plans of how to accomplish that over the medium term, as the Shadow Chancellor George Osborne did this week.
But timing is all important. It is impossible to say with any certainty what shape Britain's recovery will take over the coming years. If growth returns solidly then restructuring can – and should – proceed with urgency. But growth is just as likely to be meagre and fragile. Under those circumstances, rapid retrenchment on the public finances would do more harm than good, possibly even inducing an economic relapse.
Mr Cameron and his party need to discover a way of talking about the economic challenges ahead which move beyond crude rhetoric about "Labour's debt crisis". And what will be required from the next government is a pragmatic and non-ideological approach to restoring balance to the public finances.
The other pressing doubt concerns Europe. Mr Cameron spoke yesterday about the need for Britain to tackle climate change and complete the mission in Afghanistan. Yet while he wills the ends, he appears to refuse the means. It is impossible to see how common challenges such as global warming and international terrorism can be adequately addressed without working wholeheartedly within the European Union. Yet, on Europe, Mr Cameron has been a study in ambivalence.
Mr Cameron and the Conservatives came into this week's conference well placed to form the next government. This conference has done nothing to upset that trajectory. But they need to be wary. The positions they adopt and the decisions they take in opposition will – to a large degree – determine what sort of administration they become and their chances of achieving the goals they set for themselves.
If Mr Cameron and his team are to prove themselves truly fit for government they need to choose carefully over the coming months.Reuse content