Tory Party conference: Passionate and witty, the PM’s speech had fizz

Compared with Ed Miliband’s whimsical speech last week, this appeared to be substantial and stuffed full of policy announcements

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David Cameron has delivered a model pre-election conference speech. There were many boxes to tick, and he ticked them. He did not so much mount a single overwhelming argument as move from box to box. There was a section for the low paid, lots aimed at “hard-working parents”, and the NHS was a highlight. There was more tonal variety than is usual in a Cameron address. He came across as passionate, angry and witty. Compared with Ed Miliband’s whimsical speech last week, Cameron’s appeared to be substantial and stuffed full of policy announcements.

Appearances can deceive. Cameron might not have forgotten to mention the deficit, but he did not specify a single new cut that he proposed to make. Instead, he repeated that the Conservatives would cut a further £25bn in the early years of the next parliament. He insisted the reductions were “do-able”, but the lack of any detail suggests that the global figure is easy to restate while the actual cuts will be much harder to implement or even to outline in advance of the election.

No doubt there will be more fantasy figures plucked out of the welfare budget, but those close to the current Welfare Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, have deep doubts about how much further benefits can be squeezed. So what would Cameron and George Osborne do to meet their self-imposed timetable in relation to spending cuts? Defence? NHS? Transport? Education? The proposed tax cuts are smartly aimed at a section of the electorate that the modern post-Thatcher leadership has alienated, the relatively low paid. But they are also expensive. Taking more of earners out of income tax will reduce tax revenues significantly and benefit quite a lot of high earners too. Somehow or other, Cameron hopes to wipe out the deficit and build up a surplus, while having billions to give away.

The sun is most emphatically shining as he looks ahead. Miliband’s speech might have had a psychedelic quality to it as he outlined his meetings with strangers on Hampstead Heath, but Cameron’s “tax and spend” sequence was fantastical in a different way. If Labour could get its act together, and discover how to frame arguments more persuasively, there are many holes in his proposals.

But leadership is partly an art form, especially when a leader makes a speech. Cameron seemed in command and at ease with the titanic demands. He gave the impression that he had a vision for the next five years and, fleetingly, as if his new policies had been thought through. Once the artist had left the stage, various cabinet ministers struggled to explain how the tax cuts would be made or when. They are nearly silent on the precise spending cuts.

This was a speech and a conference that had some fizz compared with the paralysing fear that permeated Labour’s gathering. But the range of uncosted and hastily assembled announcements in Cameron’s speech showed that he is fearful, too. For different reasons, both the bigger parties march warily towards the next election.