Wednesday 1 October 2008

Cameron tickles the party's tummy

This was a difficult moment for David Cameron to make his leader’s speech. Having made a well-judged non-partisan intervention yesterday, this was, after the first couple of minutes on the economy – much more like the traditional leader’s speech that he would have given without the current economic crisis than this morning’s reports suggested. There were some jokes, though not that many. He bashed his opponents, celebrated his party’s victories in Crewe and London, and went out to the choreographed music and clapping of the campaign rally.

But I thought that there was a significant weakness in the speech.

Policy doesn’t matter, he suggested. Character does. Yet Cameron’s account of his personal credo – he believes in the family, the Union, the rule of law but also the environment and quality of life too – was so much motherhood and apple pie. Much of it could have come from a graduation speech or a greetings card. What came across is that he is comfortable with who he is – rather than much more about what he would do with power.

And I could barely spot a single moment in the speech where David Cameron did anything significant to challenge his own party, in sharp contrast to Tony Blair in 1995 or 1996, despite this being a moment when both the opinion polls and the economic crisis give him all but unprecedented authority in his party.

Cameron’s claim to be ready for power is that, having changed his party, he is ready to change Britain. Yet he spent a great deal of the speech tickling the party’s tummy – telling us that you need to get married to show real commitment, getting large clap lines on a Lisbon Treaty referendum, stressed more how much he would like to cut taxes than the limitations on being able to do so, and the strict discipline of sound finance.

He literally declared war on the (largely now straw man) of the trendy teaching of the 1960s, and returning a number of times to the ‘elf and safety’ culture and for his (dodgy) claim that policemen can’t pursue armed criminals without filling out a form first, and decided to use his bully pulpit to take on a small alternative spelling campaign which calls itself the spelling society.

Even when he sounded as though he was about to challenge his own side on law and order, he instead acknowledged the validity of his party’s tough instincts, while arguing that it needed to be combined with a broader approach.

He told his party that they had changed. He quickly listed the counter-intuitive causes of gender and ethnic diversity and the environment, telling Tory members that they had embraced these issues not to change the party’s image but because they believed in them,

And yet the balance of his own speech suggests he may have doubts about just how deep those changes go.

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