It is a measure of what trouble the Conservative Party is in that its leader must reassure his most fervent supporters, gathered at the annual conference, that he wants to secure a majority government at the next election.
But that was one of David Cameron’s most heartfelt passages in his oddly flat conference speech today, vowing to fight ‘heart and soul’ at the next election, scotching any rumours that talks with Nick Clegg about continuing the coalition have amounted to anything significant.
At the last election, the Tories got a 36 per cent share of the vote and to win in 2015 it is very likely they will need their vote share to rise. It’s not impossible, of course; Cameron is their best asset – he remains more popular than his party – and incumbent party ratings tend to improve closer to an election. But, being split on the right by bumptious Nigel Farage and UKIP together with the Liberal Democrats’ decision not to support boundary changes, this remains a very tall order.
To win, Cameron has to try and control the centre ground and broaden the Conservatives’ appeal. Much of the last year the party has spent probably too much time shoring up its core support to try and stop the haemorrhage to UKIP; in this, it has probably succeeded but it has done little to improve its poll ratings, which remain stubbornly in the low thirties.
Given Ed Miliband’s supposed leap to the left, there should have been a fair swathe of centre ground into which David Cameron could have jumped this afternoon - yet it was ignored. In fact, not very much was said at all. Backed up by the vapid and schizophrenically-hyphenated slogan ‘For hardworking people’ (I got bored of counting the numbers of press releases from the Tory press office which included both ‘hardworking’ and ‘hard-working’), the prime minister ticked all the right Tory boxes, but did little else. Cameron can deliver a rousing speech but this wasn’t one of them. It felt forced; even the slivers of anger towards Labour, most noticeably on the NHS, sounded too scripted and rehearsed.
The key phrase of ‘land of opportunity’ is decent enough, so decent in fact it was used by Margaret Thatcher in her 1987 conference speech. And indeed by Harold Wilson back in 1965, who claimed that the 1964 election of a Labour government was a decision that ‘the old closed circle of opportunity based on family connections and school connections should go and should yield place to a land of opportunity for every boy and girl’.
Worse of all was the dearth of ideas. Cameron presented no new policies whatsoever. Some on the right have cheered this, satisfied that ’big’ government is taking a back seat, replaced by steady-as-she goes, a firm hand on the tiller. But around the country people can see that things need to be done: schools and homes to built; roads to mend; train tracks to be laid; services improved. By this measure, George Osborne’s speech was by far the more significant.
The nearest hint of a new policy was ‘everyone under 25 – earning or learning’. Halting benefits for the under 25s – particularly housing benefit – has been hinted at before and Downing Street sources, recognising the lack of much else to talk about, suddenly became eager to brief a few crumbs of detail. Housing benefit and job seekers’ allowance could both be affected and single parents could be included; this ‘land of opportunity’ Cameron spoke so much about will look an awful long way off for the children of the 166,002 single women on housing benefit, if it ever comes about. It all seemed very back-of-a-fag-packet stuff; it certainly won’t be a coalition policy and it will do little to broaden the party’s appeal.
Ed Miliband’s populist – and popular – targeting of the big six energy companies was inevitably rubbished; it may be economically illiterate but the prime minister didn’t explain why and he certainly didn’t present an alternative strategy to break the energy firms’ cartel; a problem all parties now acknowledge.
For well over a year now, Ed Miliband and Labour have threatened to win the next election without having to bother coming up with any policies. Now they have some and they remain unanswered. Obviously, next year’s conferences are to be the crucial clarion calls ahead of the 2015 election, but Cameron’s listless, uninspiring performance today gave little indication he has any idea how to respond.