Opening shots of a campaign, or a successful prevention of one?
Stakes were pretty high at the Winter Gardens this afternoon. The Tories are trailing by a long way in the opinion polls, with Gordon Brown looking ready to call an election next week, with 1 November being widely trailed as the most likely date. Conservatives, although famed for their disloyalty at moments of stress, have actually usually fallen into line at Conference time - at least publicly. If you don't believe this, then remember Iain Duncan Smith's 17 standing ovations during his ghastly 'Quiet Man returns' speech - two weeks befre his defenestration. So it was probable that all Cameron had to do was read out the phone book, or copy Gordon Brown and read out Michael Dukakis's stump speeches from 1988, in order to garner lashings of applause. The press, however, are a harder bunch to please.
Important speech then, and there were two primary objectives for Cameron: first to energise the Tory faithful; second to prime the wider public on the differences between Brown and Cameron. The first objective had to be fulfilled largely through content, and the second on presentation. How did he stack up?
I'll talk about the content of the speech later - what sprang out was its presentation. As in Blackpool two years ago Cameron decided to speak without notes, and without a podium to hide behind. This meant that the speech was looser in form than it might have been, but gave it greater informality and also a more intimate style. Deliberate contrasts with Brown ('just imagine him giving a speech like this') were hard to avoid. The tone was generally reasonable and light - the Labour Party were described as having made mistakes despite generally good intentions for example - and it ought to come across well on television. The instant vibe from the press pack was good. Interestingly the press weren't given a transcript of the speech beforehand (obviously, since it was at least partly off-the-cuff). As a result, the reports will have been a lot more 'feel of the moment' in character.
As for the content - well, there was some real policy content. On education Cameron came closer than he ever has to explicitly adopting a voucher-style system:
We want to open up the state monopoly and allow new schools to start so we can bring the innovation, change and diversity of the private sector to the state sector... Simple regulatory regime, per capita funding and have new schools so we can really drive up standards.
Welfare Reform was also addressed, with Wisconsin and Australia being flagged as systems that work in getting people off benefits - which was also encouraging. Various other areas were touched on, including soldiers welfare, the NHS and so on, but these two were the big proposals that stuck out - welfare reform and voucher education. Sounds rather like Newt Gingrich's Republicans...
Whether it was enough to stop an Autumn election is debatable. There's an AJP Taylor-esque argument that an election is now impossible to avoid. Brown has ramped up speculation to such an extent that if he were to have second thoughts and call a halt he'd look terribly weak. On the other hand, if the polls do turn around after this Conference, would Brown really risk losing his Commons majority? It would only take a 1.5% swing to the Tories after all, and Labour have done almost unbelievably badly in the South over the last couple of years. If an election is called, however, David Cameron has, in my view for what that's worth, done enough to ensure that the Conservatives can go into it with as good a chance as they have had for the last ten years.
Labels: Cameron, Election, politics, Tories