Style not substance: David Cameron’s conference speech contained some smart sloganeering but was largely an exercise in evasiveness

The Prime Minister made much of Ed Miliband’s omission but himself failed to explain how he will pay for his tax perks

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David Cameron certainly proved one thing in his conference speech. He can read off a big prompter at the back of the hall with more spontaneity and conviction than Ed Miliband can summon while delivering a speech from memory. The Prime Minister’s was a good speech, well constructed and delivered with some force. The passage on the health service, when he said of Labour “How dare they frighten those who are relying on the NHS right now?”, was powerful and from the heart.

As for his conclusion, there are only two slogans in politics: “Time for change”, and “Life is getting better, don’t let the other lot ruin it”. Mr Cameron’s closing appeal – “The light is coming up after some long dark days” – was an effective form of slogan No 2.

The policy on offer in the speech, however, was a set of cynical packages done up with decorative ribbon to distract attention from the contents. The specific pledge on NHS spending that was trailed in advance as a response to Ed Miliband’s promise of an extra £2.5bn a year paid for by a mansion tax (and other numbers plucked from the money tree): that turned out to be merely a promise to “protect the NHS budget and continue to invest more”.

More specific sounding were the promises to raise the starting points for basic rate income tax and the higher 40p rate, which amounts to a £7bn-a-year tax cut by the end of the next Parliament. But it was extraordinary to hear these promises of unfunded tax cuts, at a time when the deficit is still vast, from a Prime Minister who criticised Mr Miliband for “forgetting about the deficit”.

Even less bankable was Mr Cameron’s promise to do “what Britain needs” about the free movement of workers throughout the European Union. He cynically raised expectations that a government that wanted Britain to remain in the EU could prevent people from existing EU member states coming here to work. He may simply be hoping that this dishonest position will get him through the election. How much better it would be to tell the truth, however, which is that free movement, which also allows British people to live and work in other EU countries, benefits us all.

We recognise that the Prime Minister has to manage three coalitions, and that this is a difficult task that would test the dexterity of Harold Wilson at his most cunning. His first coalition is with the Labour Party in Scotland, the recovery of which he reluctantly needs to check the post-referendum advance of the Scottish National Party. That SNP surge threatens to turn a supposedly decisive referendum result into a multiple-choice question.

Then he has to manage his internal coalition with the Ukip-minded members of his own party. On this, his colourful warning not to go to bed with Nigel Farage and wake up with Mr Miliband was undermined by his unwillingness to level with the British people about the benefits of EU membership.

Finally, he has to deal with the increasingly differentiated Liberal Democrats, whom he did not mention once. He said only: “Coalition was not what I wanted to do; it’s what I had to do.” The best that can be said about Mr Cameron’s speech is that he went no further in the long-familiar Tory wish list of scrapping the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a “British Bill of Rights”, the contents of which are yet to be confirmed.

The best way of managing each of those coalitions would be for Mr Cameron to remain true to himself and to stick to the centre ground and to eschew narrow English nationalism. He did not quite pull it off: he needs to do so over the next eight months.