Coffee House

Conservative conference: David Cameron’s rally-style speech

10 October 2012

This was one of David Cameron’s optimism speeches, a recession-era variant of his ‘let sunshine win the day’. It was pretty short of announcements, which is understandable given the lack of any good news. Instead he focused on essential optimism of the Conservative message: that this is a party which places faith in people, not in governments. And he wanted to spell out what that means, confronting Labour’s criticism of his party (and himself) head-on.

His speech was full of praise for ‘buccaneering’ Britain, a nation whose ability to take on the world was reflected in the Olympic medals table. That there is no problem we can’t solve, if we can persuade the Queen to parachute out of an aircraft to raise a laugh we can do anything. He is quite right, of course, but he didn’t quite say what his government would do to get off the back of the people.  And there was no real restatement of the campaigning themes of this government. There is no turning back, Cameron said, no alternative to tough decisions. Quite right, but the criticism of the people in the hall was that his decisions are not tough or radical enough. As we say in the leader of the new Spectator, Cameron’s speech laid out the problems and the overall principles –  the fringes were better at spelling out what specific solutions would look like.

His delivery was excellent, as usual: if Ed Miliband had spoken like this, we’d be describing it as a near-miracle. But will this speech be remembered in a year’s time? Or even a month’s time? I doubt it, but I don’t think it was written to be a political landmark. There were sections in it that will be remembered to those who follow politics, especially his moving references to his late son, Ivan.

“When I used to push my son Ivan around in his wheelchair, I always thought that some people saw the wheelchair, not the boy. Today more people would see the boy and not the wheelchair – and that’s because of what happened here this summer.”

Cameron rarely mentions Ivan, which gives such references all the more impact. He spoke movingly about his father’s disability, talking more about his family than he ever has before. But ideology? Political belief? When he said he’s list his own answer to Beveridge’s famous five “giant evils”, I wondered if he was going to outline a creed. But not really: he was against “unfairness” and “injustice”. As are most people in politics.


Of course, conferences speeches are bigger moments for Opposition leaders than Prime Ministers. If Cameron has a major announcement, he’ll make it in the House of Commons. He may not have had Boris’s jokes, but did have Boris’s spirit of optimism. I liked how he used the Boris line to defend his Eton education:

And to all those people who say: he wants children to have the kind of education he had at his posh school I say: yes – you’re absolutely right. I went to a great school and I want every child to have a great education. I’m not here to defend privilege, I’m here to spread it. I had a great education, he said, and I want all children to have one as good as I did.

This is important, because Cameron has hitherto acted almost embarrassed about his schooling whereas Boris was not in the least ashamed. Today, he dealt with it head-on. It was as if Cameron has, finally, worked out that it doesn’t matter: you play the hand you’re dealt. This is a Tory principle, and he had others. He drew a dividing line between Conservatives and Labour:-

We don’t preach about one nation but practise class war. We just get behind people who want to get on in life.

And there as even his own not-so-coded dig at Miliband, the son of a Marxist historian born into leftie aristocracy:-

While the intellectuals of other parties sneer at people who want to get on in life, we here salute you.

He was able to point to reform in welfare and in schools.

That’s my plan – millions of children sent to independent schools. Independent schools, in the state sector. That’s the genuine revolution that’s now underway.

But when he referred to 79 free schools with 100 more to come, you had a sense of how little progress is being made. We need 430 new primary schools to open each year, just to keep pace with population change. A revolution is indeed underway, but it’s moving too slowly. That is what, for me, blunted the impact of the speech.When he says “Growth: fired up” it sounds great, except it’s untrue. “How can the answer be more spending and more borrowing?” he asks. Quite so: but why has he increased both this year?

I’ve heard Cameron give good, nay, inspirational speeches before. But then there’s no follow-up. It’s all forgotten by Christmas – and the significance of the speech is limited to how far it entertained a tiny number people who watched the full thing.

That’s why it sounded, to me, more like a rally speech than a conference speech. But it was none the worse for that. The Conservatives are, after all, a party that badly needs to be rallied. If the activists needed a reminder about why they give up their time and money to help, then Cameron certainly provided it. It was an articulate defence of Conservatism, and an uplifting summary of his personal politics. But a Prime Minister he will be judged on what he does, not what he says. If the actions of his government tie in with the words of his speech then then – and only then – can it be judged to be a success.

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  • Dimoto

    What about Miliminor, will he also be judged on what he does/did, rather than a tosheroo speech which seemed to so excite the Spectatoriat last week ?

  • Bickers

    Action will have to speak louder than words for Cameron to stand any chance of winning the next election:
    1. ditch renewables subsidies
    2. copy Canada and reduce public spending by at least 20%
    3. stop unfettered immigration
    4. tell the EU/ECJ/ECHR that we’re ditching their directives and rulings if they’re against our national interest
    5. stop foreign aid (other than emergencies) until deficit 0%
    6. cut quango;’s (promised before last election)
    7. simplify tax system & cut taxes
    8. cut BBC licence fee by 50% and legislate that they cannot compete in areas served by the private sector

  • London Calling

    I agree, the words must match the action. mostly they did. It was a Great speech for rallying the cause, lets hope we all go forward….:)

  • Tron

    The best part of the speech was when Cameron picked up on Ed Miliband saying a tax cut was the Government “writing a cheque” to the people.
    This was the real Red Ed. He believes your wages belong to the government and that they give you back the pocket money they think you deserve.
    No one in Ed’s team picked up on this mistake because that’s how Labour think.

  • Widmerpool

    Very revealing that you use the word “we”!
    it was the Labour party that chose Milliband not the Coffee Housers.
    Perhaps you should in future post on a site more in keeping with your apparent Labour thinking.
    Like it or not the Speccie[most of the times] is a Conservative media!
    IMHO very well done Dave and in the case of Ed he passes the Elephant Test you just know by listening and looking at him that he is a Geek and with any luck will be the leader of the opposition [and a geek] for a very long time!

    • Rob Broome

      @957bc07d6958ccf05bd7677ab727f624:disqus Actually the Labour party in an all too brief moment of mental clarity chose David Miliband. The Unions chose Red Ed!

  • telemachus

    Good one Fraser
    Fusion of Boris and Churchill
    “Brilliant put down of Miliband”

    Even Vicar Maidstone may fall in love with this site again

  • In2minds

    “he didn’t quite say what his government would do to get off the back of the people” That’s right, but then with the Communications Data Bill it’s clear he has no intention of doing so.

  • ButcombeMan

    I liked his bit on education.
    Did he mention the Europe problem and what he intended to do about it?

    Did I miss it?

    Any political leader’s speech that misses that problem issue out, is pointless and vacuous..

    There is an elephant in the room.

    • realfish

      Yes, you missed it. The Europe problem was a theme implicit throughout the speech.
      He talked of tired, sclerotic, uncompeitive countries burdened by regulation, welfare, pensions etc etc, and of EU treaties not right for Britain and of hours in talking shops, doing nothing (about Greece), while other countries were getting on and growing…

      • ButcombeMan

        He has to talk about what he intends the UK to DO about our relationship with Europe. Talking around the issue is no longer enough, he just will not be believed, indeed is not believed.

        Milliband will beat him to the draw if he is not very careful indeed.

  • Matthew Whitehouse

    All very Rousing stuff I’m sure, but… In the back of my mind are the things that have been said recently ref: EU. That they are backtracking like never before… Almost like: “dont ask the people, get them to vote for us 1st and then we’ll see what we can get out of the EU”…. Apart from the Economy, the EU is the biggest issue, and they’re failing us with soft/wet words…

    • Butcombeman

      I agree. Exactly my point.

      He is stepping around the key political problem of our age. Fraser did not spot it. In itself, that is worrying.

      Like you I have the fear he STILL thinks he can fudge the Europe issue. Fudging it any more will be fatal to the Tories.

      If he is not very careful indeed, Red Ed will trump him on Europe. THEN he really will be in serious trouble.

  • John_Page

    it sounded more like a party rally speech than a party conference speech

    What’s the difference?

  • Mark

    It makes a pleasant change to hear the Prime Minister sound like a Conservative.

    • telemachus

      A magic optimistic speech
      Trumped Miliband
      I told you all we had the wrong Ed

    • George_Arseborne

      Again David Cameron had proven me right, that he is a loud sounding nothing. What a vacuum ?

    • Charlie the Chump

      True but does he act like a Conservative?

      • David Barnett


  • Malcolm Redfellow

    Similarly … if activists needed a reminder about why they give up their time and money to oppose, then Cameron probably provided it.

    • Coffeehousewall

      Would you like to reflect on how many people have CEASED to be party members and activists? Did he say anything to them? Or to those who will not vote for the Conservative Party despite being conservatives?

      What did he say that actually will make any difference to the downward and destructive trajectory of our society?

    • Rob Broome

      Yes, we can’t have those children being educated at good schools not run by the local authorities or those on benefits entering work…can we Malcolm?

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