As the audience filed out of the Manchester Central conference hall after Ed Miliband’s speech last week, the question repeated over and over again was ‘well, what’s David Cameron going to do now?’ Though the Prime Minister’s aides were dismissive of suggestions that he should try to beat Miliband by memorising his speech and walking around the stage while delivering it (Paul Waugh notes in his email memo this morning that one spinner said ‘He’s Prime Minister, he doesn’t have days and days to practice and memorise a speech – like you do in Opposition’), the PM was clearly rattled enough to produce a speech which contained large sections of reaction.
The first passage on Labour attacked Miliband’s attempt to steal One Nation from the Tories:
‘We don’t look at the label on the tin; we look at what’s in it. Let me put that another way. We don’t preach about one nation but practise class war. We just get behind people who want to get on in life. The doers. The risk takers. The young people who dream of their first pay-cheque, their first car, their first home – and are ready and willing to work hard to get those things. While the intellectuals of other parties sneer at people who want to get on in life, we here salute you. They call us the party of the better-off: no, we are the party of the want-to-be-better-off, those who strive to make a better life for themselves and their families – and we should never, ever be ashamed of saying so.’
The best riposte to One Nation was in the section on the opposition’s economic policy, where Cameron described Labour as ‘the party of one notion: more borrowing’. It was a good pun, and a good attack line (if you are willing to forget for one minute that the Conservatives are part of the Government of More Borrowing).
The Prime Minister then moved on to attacking those who ‘twist our ideas and distort who we are: the cartoon Conservatives who don’t care’. He argued that instead ‘Conservatives think: let’s just get on with the job and help people and not bang on about it. It’s not our style.’ This gave him the chance to repeat his definition of a Conservative.
Though the speech was in many ways a defensive one in that it tried to deal with political clothes-stealing and caricatures, Cameron managed to pull it off without seeming rattled. People tend to say that the Prime Minister thrives when his back is against the wall, which is partially true: his flashman moments at PMQs show that not all pressure is good pressure for David Cameron. But today he had space to set out his stall rather than throw out angry one-liners across the Chamber. And he did look Prime Ministerial today as he delivered his speech from the podium: the contrast worked. But as James says, the big challenge is whether the Tories can maintain the clear blue water established this week in Birmingham when they return to Parliament.