I was once told by a man who knows about such things that the principle effect of cocaine is to cause the user to say absolutely nothing of interest at great length and with total conviction. This is basically the objective of most party conference speeches, and the one David Cameron delivered today was a masterpiece in this respect.
Mid way through a parliamentary term he was not going to set out a new vision for the country, because he has already done that, and has spent the last two and a half years trying to put it in to practice. His job today was to explain to the country what he is doing and to rally his party behind him in preparation for the next election. He probably made a better fist of the second task than the first.
For a Conservative in the hall there was plenty to be excited about. He attacked Ed Miliband directly, painting him as a naive man who did not understand how taxation worked. He attacked the wider left, notably the teaching unions, as being a roadblock to the reforms that the public want to see. As with Ed Miliband praising the NHS, this was a particularly easy way to get a round of applause from his activists. They will leave Birmingham happy.
For the country at large, the picture is less clear. Cameron himself correctly identified the ground on which the next election will be fought, namely education, welfare and the economy. Of these, it is the last which is causing the most trouble for the Conservatives. Just this week the IMF cut the UK growth forecast, calling the government’s economic strategy in to question. Cameron directly addressed this concern, arguing that although austerity is painful, there is no alternative. He must know that for this to ring true there must be some sign that the government’s policies are working by the next election. He gave a big mention to Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms, which was something of a gamble, because the biggest reform of all, the Universal Credit, is still in the development stage, and doubts have been raised about its viability (this will be the subject of a future blog). At the moment, only the government’s education policy looks like a clear winner for the Tories. That alone will not be enough for them to win an election.
Above all, this speech was the epitome of modern professional politics. It ticked all the necessary boxes, it rallied the troops without being offensive to the wider public, and the man delivering it seemed plausible and relaxed in his role. There were no lines which will be remembered by this time next month, nor indeed were there supposed to be. That, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with modern party politics. The conference season essentially aims to give activists the illusion of political engagement, while in reality a self-selecting professional elite governs both their party and their country. Cameron’s speech merely confirmed his place at the top of this elite. On its own terms it can therefore be judged to be a resounding success.