There are some risks in David Cameron’s big tent approach. Some voters might see his attempt to take Labour territory as too obviously opportunistic. And while his party conference loved the speech he delivered in Manchester, not every Tory in the land will have been entirely thrilled with passages so heavy on equality, all designed to present the Cameroon modernising project as a seamless hello trees, hello clouds happy creation finally vindicated in May by a grateful electorate. The last ten years have been a lot messier than that. A Tory modernising Prime Minister who began never wanting to mention such subjects realised that he has to talk about immigration, aspiration and Europe. It’s just that he does it all in a pretty calm and professional manner that connects with voters, or certainly in a manner that connects more than Ed Miliband did or Jeremy Corbyn ever will.
Of course, what really won it for the Tories in the 2015 general election was a hard headed campaign, run by Lynton Crosby, and fronted well by Cameron. They created a fusion; a potent combination. It was bread and butter conservatism with some modernisation on top, and a serving of SNP space on the side. The dominant flavour was anti-Labour.
But in terms of structure that was still one hell of a speech today, even if it may not have been Cameron’s very best. The Blackpool 2007 “we will fight, Britain will win” five minutes to midnight speech that helped see off Brown, ahead of the election that never was, takes some beating in terms of theatricality and ballsiness. Compared with Bournemouth 2006, though, (the terrible “let sunshine win the day” effort”) his speech this year was that of a fully-formed politician playing at the top of his game.
Is that over the top? He should enjoy the moment as there are plenty of problems ahead for Cameron and his party. Europe will get messy. Tax credits could blow up, in George Osborne’s face. And then there’s Scotland. Never has a country talked so much about itself and to so little practical end. If the SNP succeeds in making the Scottish election the latest instalment of its whingeathon about constitutional powers and imagined grievance, then Sturgeon will get a majority and it will be game on for a referendum with 2019 the likeliest moment of opportunity. Akko that lies ahead.
Today, what stood out most for me was not the shape-shifting and ideological cross-dressing. It was the simplicity and power of the honed attacks on Labour and its new leader. Here’s one such section:
“Thousands of words have been written about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a “tragedy”. No. A tragedy is nearly 3,000 people murdered one morning in New York. A tragedy is the mums and dads who never came home from work that day. A tragedy is people jumping from the towers after the planes hit. My friends – we cannot let that man inflict his security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating ideology on the country we love.”
Getting to say “security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating ideology” about an opponent and knowing that it will resonate with middle-ground voters, the voters who decided the last election and who will decide the next election, is the stuff of a leader’s dreams. There then followed a neat demolition of Labour’s economic policy, and a joke about the Joy of Tax (64 Corbynite positions, all of them wrong) before he appealed to Labour moderates. This is pure power politics, impressive in the extent of its ambition. The Tories are moving far beyond what they did to poor old Ed Miliband. They are framing the Corbynites as wholly unpatriotic, terrorist-loving, extremist clowns who will destroy the market economy. It remains a national tragedy that Labour has got itself into this position, where it can be framed in this way and the sensible response is: yep, that just about fits.
How will Labour respond? Are the people around Corbyn idiots? Increasingly, one cannot rule that possibility out. They watched that well-crafted speech by a confident Cameron and then issued a statement shortly afterwards saying that it proved that Corbyn has got Cameron rattled. To believe that you do have to be an idiot.