Leading article: The emperor's new clothes

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The Independent Online

After three weeks, scores of speeches, hundreds of fringe meetings and thousands of journalist-hours devoted to the careful reporting and rigorous holding to account of our politicians, party conference season is over. In an echo of Tony Blair five years ago, the Prime Minister has made a statement about his health that somewhat obscures what went before. But that uncertainty aside, how do we stand after the party conferences?

In some quarters, you could be forgiven for thinking that we might as well not bother with our trip to the polls next April, May or June, and simply hand Dave the keys to No 10 now. This is truly far from the media's finest hour. In the collective rush to anoint the Conservative leader, in the fevered anticipation of change, and no doubt in the hope of preferment under a new administration, the press and television, bloggers and twitterers are focusing on the outcome, rather than on something more important: what do we believe?

Here at The Independent on Sunday we take a deeply unfashionable view. Yes, Labour is tired. Yes, it is prone to terrible errors. And yes, Gordon Brown, for all his abilities (and, deep down, voters, you know he has them) is a turn-off. Yes, yes, yes.

But excuse us for refusing to rush to join in the coronation. Call us terrible stick-in-the-muds, but did you listen to David Cameron's speech? It was poor, despite what you may have read elsewhere; the type of meaningless nonsense that Tony Blair did so well. It sounded as if it was scripted for Paul Whitehouse's Ron Manager character: "My beliefs. I am not complicated. I love this country. The state is your servant. Never your master. Young boys with footballs. Jumpers for goalposts." You get the idea.

To extend the analogy, three weeks of party conferences culminated in Cameron's speech. The goal was gaping. All he had to do was stroke the ball home. But he fluffed it and, as John Rentoul today, the game is still on – just about.

This newspaper rather approves of David Cameron, actually. He is extremely able, quite liberal, compassionate and green, and it is possible that he would be a good prime minister. We were looking to be convinced last week, but we have not been.

On Europe and on the economy his judgement is in question, and last week he failed utterly to make his case. On Europe, he and William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, engaged in obfuscation. This may be tactically clever, but causing such gratuitous offence to our mainstream partners in Europe is foolish and dangerous.

On the economy, he and George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, failed to make the case for early cuts in public spending. Instead, they announced a cut in state pensions in the parliament after next. Instead of taking on Mr Brown's argument that we need to maintain public spending to kick-start growth, we got a simplistic Thatcherite lecture about spending more than we earn. Instead of a credible plan that would be tough on the causes of poverty, we got the unconvincing assertion that "We're all in this together". Set that against policies – such as an inheritance tax cut on estates up to £1m – that tend to favour the better off.

Mr Cameron's speech was a missed chance to keep a progressive section of the electorate in play, a section well represented among readers of this newspaper, many of whom will have regarded the Conservative leadership as reverting to type last week.

We have not, therefore, been moved off our belief that the Government is broadly right about the economy. The corollary of that belief is that Labour's main weakness is presentational. This newspaper has held out longer than most against the media consensus that Mr Brown is not up to the task of modern political communications. "Britain can have upgrowth," he said yesterday. But we still hope that he will be given credit for the substance rather than the way he expresses it.

It may be that this hope will be frustrated. Politics can be a cruel, unfair and unforgiving business. It may be that there is another member of the Cabinet that would be better able to lead the party into the coming election than Mr Brown; the Labour Party has perhaps two or three months finally to decide that question.

Paradoxically, Mr Cameron's disappointingly flat speech, by failing to press home more definitively his advantage, means that it is all the more urgent that Labour gets the answer right.