Thursday, October 07, 2010

Your country needs you

While I thought the delivery of Cameron's speech was broadly good and shows that he is in fine form as a performer, the substance was distinctly lacking. He drew upon Kennedy and Churchill, even Kitchener got a mention, but the last time the country was implored to join a crusade in that way, we buried young men in industrial numbers across Europe, so perhaps it is not the most appropriate of rallying cries.

Certainly, there were chunks of raw meat thrown to the baying faithful - all party leaders should be able to recite a list of their achievements and their opponents' failings - but that is a characteristic of any end-of-conference speech. These used to be the preserve of the party chair, who would send the activists back to their constituencies fired up for the battles ahead. I'm surprised to see Cameron given this slot, although it doesn't expose him to post-game analysis by the delegates in the bars, as they are all straining at the leash to get home on the next train. His response was enthusiastic, as befits the first Conservative Prime Minister this century, but not as rapturous as he might have hoped. Partly, I think that this is because he is not - and may never be - a winner, dependent as he is on Liberal Democrat support to retain his job. While Labour adores our valiant losers - Foot and Kinnock, for example - the Tories only lionise their winners, with Thatcher being at the top of the tree.

With that in mind, Cameron was savvy enough to announce that the Blessed Margaret would be returning to No 10 to celebrate her 85th birthday next week, which will be good news for exorcists in the Westminster area. Cameron even found time to insult Neil Kinnock (a much finer orator than he), so with Heseltine prowling around again, Ken Clarke in the Cabinet, defence cuts and disgraced 1970s economics back on the agenda, we must be back in 1980, although I'm not sure that a decade of fine music will be compensation for the damage to be inflicted on our public services. I remember it the first time round...

The speech was very light on actual policy and, when he wasn't blaming Labour for everything, ever, Cameron focussed on the Big Society, a policy proposal that is so nebulous that even the most die hard Tory activist would have to admit that it was a very hard sell on the electorate's doorsteps in the recent election. It was quite clear from the response in the hall that the members didn't get it either, but they let Cameron bang on about it for what seemed like weeks.

There were a few jokes, but the story about the six year old who sent in the money from the tooth fairy to help bring down the deficit was badly handled as Cameron theatrically handed the money to Osborne - the actual donation was returned to the child in question. Thatcher came for the milk money, now Cameron is returning for the milk teeth.

Also falling flat in hindsight was his attack on Ed Balls for being critical of a government policy because it would create winners, allowing Cameron to riff about Labour being opposed to winners.

"Ed Balls, the man who used to be in charge of education in our country, he said one of the dangers of our schools policy was that it would create 'winners.

"Winners? I mean we can't possibly have winners. I mean the danger that your child might go to school and turn out to be a winner.

Anti-aspiration. Anti-success. Anti-parents who just want the best for
their children.

What an unbelievable attitude from this Labour generation, and we're gonna fight it all the way."

Like many who heard that, I said that the full quote would end with "...and losers" and so it came to pass. It actually came from a Newsnight exchange in May and the full quote is
"The danger is that there will be winners in this policy, but it is dishonest not to say that there will be losers as well."

Toby Young was there and he, depressingly, defends the shortening of the quote. Quelle surprise.

In the end, it was a speech that promised much, but failed to deliver.

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