It is easy to inflate the importance of speeches made at party conferences. Particularly when those speeches are the last such set piece events before a general election. But they are still, in the end and at bottom, a distillation of what matters most to a leader. A guide to his priorities; a demonstration of his faith.
Somewhere along the line David Cameron has lost that faith. He was elected leader of the Tory party in desperate times and became Prime Minister in dismal times. In both instances he triumphed, at least in part, because he persuaded his audience that though he might look like a traditional Tory he was in fact a rather different type of Tory from those voters had grown fond of despising.
Once upon a time, you see, David Cameron had a story to tell. Somhow he lost that story. Or forgot it. Or felt it no longer mattered or had been rendered obsolete by events. Which is why, as he prepares to speak in Birmingham tomorrow, he’s in trouble.
Of course it’s true that voters might decide in the final weeks of the long election campaign that Ed Miliband isn’t up to being Prime Minister and that, despite their misgivings, they’ll give Cameron a second chance. But it’s also possible that voters already have a keen idea about Miliband’s weakness and will vote Labour anyway. Miliband’s doofusness may be priced-in. If it is then these are the last few months of Prime Minister Cameron.
The story matters, you see. Voters need a reason to believe. They crave inspiration and reassurance. They want to feel their leaders are talking to them, not just to the crazies within the party. Viewed from that perspective this Conservative conference has been a disaster.
The vast majority of British voters who have no time for UKIP cannot be expected to have much time for a party that evidently has quite a lot of time for Mr Farage’s boggle-eyed collection of malcontents. Never mind the fruitcakes, they say, what about us?
Moreover after five cheerless years in power I suspect voters want to hear some good news at last. They want to be reminded why they liked Cameron in the first place; god knows they need to be reminded of that. Instead, this conference has taken a different path. Far from slaying negative stereotypes about the Tories it has reinforced them. Only the Nasty Party bores on about welfare cards.
It is one thing to accept the need for further and faster and deeper cuts in public spending; it is quite another to boast that you’re so much tougher than your rivals. This might, in Westminster parlance, establish your credibility; it also fosters the suspicion that you’re happy to divide the country into camps labelled deserving and undeserving. There is a relish to Tory rhetoric on public spending that is unattractive. It hints at a small-tent conservatism that knows who belongs inside and to hell with anyone who lacks the fortune to be a member.
Yes, fortune. Freezing tax credits might be defensible; freezing tax credits while also opposing Labour’s proposed tax on houses worth more than £2m is a very different thing indeed. Doing so when you’ve already cut the rate of income tax paid by the richest 3% of Britons compounds the folly. If people are persuaded that this iteration of the Tory party is a party for the rich it is in large part because the Tory party has done far too little to disabuse them of that notion.
Of course we know that pensioners vote and that many of them will vote for Conservative candidates next year. The politics of this are not difficult to discern. Nevertheless, there is something dire about a ‘debate’ on welfare that never, ever, mentions the fact that 60% of the benefits bill is paid to pensioners. The young can be forgiven for thinking some of us are in it more than others.
Somewhere along the line the Reform message got lost. At some point Cameron – and Osborne – stopped explaining why spending cuts are necessary. Instead they simply crowed that Labour couldn’t be trusted to be tough enough. As though toughness was a cardinal virtue and not the kind of thing you boast about when you’ve run out of other things to say. It doesn’t reassure voters; it frightens them.
But then this government has never been good at selling its message. What is David Cameron for? What kind of party, what kind of government, does he want to lead? If he knows, he’s done a grand job keeping his thoughts to himself.
And yet there were once ideas. There was compassionate conservatism and the Big Society. There was the Global Race. Nor were these necessarily contradictory. A reformed, retooled, Britain is necessary to leave Britain better placed to thrive in the years ahead; that doesn’t mean rejecting social solidarity – social decency – at home. On the contrary, the two could be woven together.
Events matter. Of course they do. But they need not – at least not necessarily – knock a government off-course. Cameron was elected as a new kind of Tory but, too often, has governed as just another Tory. He has counterfeited his own promise.
Of course the economy matters and so, not least because of that, does the City of London and the south-east of England. But that in turn only made it more, not less, important that the government be seen to be acting in the interests of the whole country, not simply its wealthiest regions. There’s a reason Ed Miliband latched onto his One Nation schtick; it was because the Tories left that space open to Labour. What a mistake. What a blunder. What a crime.
The point of the Husky-hugging stuff, the environmental stuff, the gay-marriage stuff, was to demonstrate that the Tory party had changed. At least gay marriage has been delivered and it remains one of Cameron’s grander achievements even if he won’t receive much credit for it. But he threw away the credit himself by, in so many other areas, projecting a message that implied – and often boasted – that the Tory party hadn’t changed.
So this week we’ve endured Chris Grayling oafishly comparing prisons to holiday camps and we’ve seen the Tory party – yet again – paralysed by europe and banging on and on about immigration. They think this makes them look strong; I suspect if often has the reverse effect. It makes them look fearful and weak and small and afraid of the world outside.
There are problems. There are things that need fixing. When were there ever not? But there is all the difference in the world between fixing things from a position of assured confidence and fixing them because you’re afraid of the modern world. It is the difference between a relaxed optimism and a paranoid pessimism. Cameron once seemed to appreciate that distinction; too often lately it seems as though he no longer does. Too often he’s Jimmy Carter when he needs a spot of Ronald Reagan.
It’s reasonable for voters to be concerned. They’ve endured five years of a government telling them everything is crap. Now that government asks for five more years. This time we’ll fix it. Promise. It’s not a compelling message especially when, in the cause of seeming tough, it’s accompanied by reminding voters they ain’t seen nothing yet. If you think the last five years have been rubbish, wait until you see what’s coming next.
I’m not sure that’s an election-winning message. I’m not sure that’s what voters really want to hear. There’s a difference between levelling with people and frightening them.
At this late stage of Cameron’s ministry a return to the happy times when sunshine could be allowed to win the day might seem bizarre and discordant. That too is a reflection on mistakes – of tactics, strategy and messaging – in the past. Nevertheless, David Cameron once promised a different kind of conservatism. He had a story once; it would be useful if he remembered what it was and why it got him where he is today. If he can remember it, perhaps he can remind the rest of us too. Otherwise Ed Miliband will be Prime Minister in eight months time.