This was intended to be the address of a statesman. David Cameron’s speech set out to portray himself as a man of character, a man of vision and a man ready to lead. Cameron struck the right tone, his speech was measured and he wisely opted to steer away from too much political partisanship. Yet, as is so often the case with this PR savvy figurehead, the content of Cameron’s address failed to match the authoritative delivery.
Cameron began by insisting that the Conservative’s meeting in Birmingham had been a ‘sober conference’, one overshadowed by the scale of the global financial crisis. Despite immediately drawing attention to the financial situation, Cameron then failed to say anything of note as to how we should move forward from here. As the original cheerleaders for a free and unregulated market, the Conservative party appears to have no coherent strategy for how best to tackle this crisis of capitalism. On Northern Rock they dithered and prevaricated on whether nationalisation was the right move, this time Cameron’s Conservatives appear happy to say nothing at all. For a man desperate to show his leadership credentials, such a brief and empty reference to the economic crisis seemed to prove that Cameron was on uncomfortable ground.
To the ‘plan for change’; the conference slogan and Cameron’s rallying call to the party faithful. It was truly remarkable that this self proclaimed ‘modern’ Conservative, decided to introduce his ‘plan for change’ by referring back to the Thatcher years. He said that ‘experience was the excuse of the incumbent’ and that had the electorate not realised the need for change in the past, we would never have had a Thatcher premiership. Unsurprisingly the party faithful lapped it up, I was in no doubt that the reference to Thatcher preceded the longest and loudest ovation of the hour long speech. This was a genuinely surprising move on behalf of Cameron, as Nick Robinson astutely said at the end of the speech, the decision to invoke Thatcher gave the address a ‘back to the future’ feel. Gone was Cameron’s ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’ and back we went to having the shadow of Thatcher dominating a Conservative leader’s party conference.
On policy detail, Cameron’s rhetoric again seemed a distance away from the reality of his policy position. He gave an impassioned plea that he was; “on the side of the hairdresser, the electrician and the call centre worker”, he was adamant that he wanted to cut the taxes of people such as these, but that he simply couldn’t afford to do so. At the same time Cameron does have two outstanding tax cutting policies. A pledge to cut corporation tax by 3p and the much vaunted policy to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1million. If the lowest earners in society were his true priority, then surely one of these proposals could be sacrificed in order to accommodate his desire to bring tax relief to the most disadvantaged?
As he moved away from tax, Cameron’s foray into the debate on MRSA was one of the most controversial of the speech. He used the example of a death from MRSA as an excuse to savage the government’s ‘bureaucritisation of the NHS’. I have always resented the MRSA issue being politicised, everyone is agreed that the cleanliness of hospitals is a national priority and therefore an A-political issue. I thought that using an MRSA case as a front for attacking the government was misplaced and insensitive.
As I said at the outset, this was a confidently delivered speech and ignoring the blemish on the MRSA issue I think Cameron struck the right tone. Leadership however, requires more than striking the right tone, it necessitates having a clear vision. I remain unconvinced that Cameron has a substantial new vision for this Country. The policy commitments that we do have are regressive and backward looking. Today’s celebration of Thatcher only added to the sense that David Cameron is not a man of change, but is a type of Conservative that we have all seen before. He has many questions to answer before he can truly position himself as the candidate for change.