Clever in its lack of cleverness. Cameron’s performance today was shrewd and unexciting, a speech of nursery-school simplicity. Large bland ideas, plain language. No detail. This was certainly no masterpiece. It didn’t have to be. Cameron’s in a holding pattern. Keep circling and he’ll land safely.
Before he arrived, William Hague frustrated the eager delegates with two corporate videos of more than ordinary dullness. The BBC, flouting its own policy of censoring political broadcasts, aired both of them on BBC Parliament (albeit with the sound turned down.) First, a surpise. No less a figure than Bono, the UN’s top Guilt Ambassador, spoke to the Tories about debt relief. His message of mercy – the mercy lay in its brevity – got a rapturous sitting ovation. Then came a boring set of clips recalling Cameron’s greatest soundbites. ‘I want people to feel good about being Conservative again.’ Do you really? ‘Nothing and no one will stop us.’ Gosh. You don’t say. Exactly why the Beeb feels it has to censor these platitudes is a mystery. Perhaps it tickles someone’s sense of self-worth.
Then out came the man himself, in a darkish suit and a blueish tie. His only aim – to project an unexceptional dependability. Not hard. He succeeded.
First he declared war on parts of Afghanistan. Day One in Whitehall and he’ll establish a war cabinet. He set out his strategy for victory. Boost troop numbers, train more Afghans, and then blow the whistle and bring the good old British Tommies (and Tammies) home.
The body of his speech attacked an abstract enemy. Big Government. Cameron built this up as a sclerotic leviathan, a many-tentacled ogre, spawned by Labour, suckled by welfarism, and currently stalking the land stifling hope, blighting businesses, ruining lives and forcing job-seekers with sprained ankles to register for disability benefit. It even prompts frightened pensioners to email Tory Central Office with tragic-comic remarks. ‘We don’t watch crime drama on TV any more, we just look out of the window’. Big Dave promised to slay Big Government.
At times, just occasionally, a different Cameron spurts forth from the suave and faintly flashy facade. Angry, personal and vindictive.
His voice tightens, his lips purse. He jabs his finger and his eyes grow cold. In far off days he was said to be a bully. That seems plausible. When he spoke of the deficit, which is now larger than the Indian ocean, he reminded us that our interest payments alone will outstrip the schools budget.
‘I say to the Unions,’ he snarled irritably, ‘what is so progressive about spending more on debt interest than on our children stuck in poverty?’ He was incandescent that the Labour party had denounced his fiscal plans as ‘callous.’ ‘Callous?’ he shrieked, ‘Don’t you dare!’ He looked like someone who’d had an unpinned grenade stuffed down his boxers. Then out came the finger. ‘You, Labour, you failed!’ And he followed it with a tirade against the ills of big government which won him a noisy ovation.
If you’re a Tory, this sort of passionate outrage is bound to warm the blood. I just thank our lucky stars Cameron is a democrat. He’d be a pretty scary, and pretty effective, tyrant.
For most of the speech he settled into that strain of reassuring competence that so pleases the rosebeds and raspberry bushes of the English shires. The NHS would be safe. Quangos would be cut. Migration would be controlled. Bureaucrats would be defenestrated. On education he reminded us, ‘This is my child. This is what I pay my taxes for. Give the money to the head teacher and stop wasting it in Whitehall.’
He was keen to tell the delegates that the view from the summit of victory would be highly agreeable. Almost as agreeable as the sight of a personable young toff standing outside a large Georgian house in Downing Street. And to finish he gave us a sort of sermon on the mount. ‘If you’re frightened, we will protect you. If you start a business, we will help you. If you risk your safety preventing a crime we will be behind you. And if you endanger your life for your country, we will always follow you.’ Terrific. But the tone of that sounded extraordinarily familiar. It sounded like big government.