David Cameron is an essay crisis Prime Minister. He works best when his back is against the wall. And this conference he had a last-minute test set for him which he had to step up to. That test was set by the Labour party last week, with its focus on the cost of living, and Cameron passed it.
His speech was written with clever flourishes and turns of phrase – ‘the land of despair was Labour, but the land of hope is Tory’, ‘Abu Qatada had his very own May Day this year’ and ‘I’ve got a gesture of my own for Ed Balls’ – but it was also dominated by the Labour party. There were 25 references to Labour in the text of the speech. The Prime Minister tried to undermine Labour’s authority on areas it thinks it owns, such as the NHS, referencing the Mid-Staffs scandal, and saying:
‘Who allowed that to happen? Yes, it was Labour, and don’t you dare lecture anyone on the NHS again.’
And he argued that Labour had no authority to speak for the hardworking people that this conference apparently belongs to. He repeatedly turned Ed Miliband’s own phrases back at him, telling delegates that ‘Britain can do better than that lot’, and that Labour had left ‘a country for the few built by the so-called party of the many’. The Prime Minister even threw Miliband’s shot at his awkward topless holiday photos back at him, joking that he had the ‘stomach for the fight’. A little self-deprecation always goes a long way.
And he drove home the point that his colleagues have been making all week, that though the facts have changed, Labour hasn’t. He said:
‘To abandon deficit reduction now would throw away all the progress we’ve made. It would put us back to square one. Unbelievably, that’s exactly what Labour now want to do. How did they get us into this mess? Too much spending, too much borrowing, too much debt. And what did they propose last week? More spending, more borrowing, more debt. They have learned nothing – literally nothing – from the crisis they created.’
But what also shone clearly from this speech was a joy in being a Conservative that Cameron sometimes struggles to offer. He was proud of what his party had achieved, he sees a clear vision of social justice and claiming the moral high ground for his party in the future. And to that end he delivered a warm speech that was received well by activists. The essay crisis set by the Labour conference worked for him.
But as the Prime Minister said, ‘we are not there yet, not by a long way’. He was talking about the economy, but he does need to be careful that his party still fights back on the cost of living. The backbench MPs who did turn up to conference this week may have seemed sedated for most of it, but one thing they are still worried about is Ed Miliband’s energy bills pledge. They know that voters will have heard that the Labour leader wants to do something about the bills that flop through their letterboxes, and will be less concerned about the political implications of this policy. While George Osborne’s announcement on the separate issue of fuel duty earlier this week was welcome, it needs to be the first in a line of policies, not a gesture to shut Labour up.Tags: Conservative conference 2013, Conservatives, David Cameron, UK politics