The question in many voters' minds, planted cleverly by Gordon Brown last week, is: "Can we imagine a 'novice' like David Cameron handling a crisis like the one engulfing the markets or should we leave it to a grown-up such as, well, Mr Brown?"
So the test for the Tory leader in his big speech yesterday was to look like a credible prime minister-in-waiting. He passed. A lot of work went into his speech, not so much to keep pace with the financial turmoil but to provide a coherent answer to the "novice" charge. While experience mattered, he argued, character and judgement mattered more. He hopes he can win on the latter two qualities.
Mr Cameron drew a distinction between his short-term offer ofco-operation with the Government on the economy, and his determination over the long term to return tonormal hostilities.
The Tory conference was blown off course by the financial turmoil. It was never going to be the week when Mr Cameron "sealed the deal" with the voters. But the reduced media spotlight deprived the Tories of the platform to display the deal they will offer.
They are telling each other not to panic, that the "Brown bounce" will be short-lived. Although the voters know the problems stem from America, the Tories believe they will be able to pin some blame on Mr Brown.
Mr Cameron described himself as a "man with a plan" but didn't go into much detail. He tried to please Tory traditionalists (by speaking of responsibility, sound money and rewarding marriage) and the voters (by hinting he would force his party to swallow unpalatable medicine – possible tax rises rather than cuts and the need to be tough on the causes of crime). The conference has been good training for the job to which Mr Cameron aspires. As he said: "The reality of government is that difficulties don't come in neat and predictable order, one by one. Difficulties come at you from all sides, one on top of the other, and you have got to be able to handle them all."
Another quality needed, he said, was the ability to admit mistakes and learn lessons. Again, the conference gave Mr Cameron practice. The Tories went for Mr Brown's jugular at the weekend, saying his reputation was "bust" and quibbling about the fine print of the Government's plans to rescue ailing banks. Then they realised such attacks were over the top during a crisis. The Tory leader executed a U-turn with his offer of consensus politics, something he will feel more comfortable with than the tribal Mr Brown. It was a clever move.
Figures in both main parties are talking a lot about the 1992 election, when John Major defeated Neil Kinnock. For Labour, it offers hope that in a downturn, the voters will "hold on to nurse for fear of something worse" – Mr Brown's best hope of winning next time. For the Tories, the lesson of 1992 is that Mr Kinnock lost the election because the voters could not envisage him in No 10. Yesterday's speech will raise their hopes that Mr Cameron will not suffer such a handicap.
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