The Social Market Foundation’s Mary Ann Sieghart said bluntly that “If the loyal audience in the hall was bored and underwhelmed, the apathetic public will be even more so.” Now, it’s true that Cameron’s speech lacked the panache Ed Miliband won plaudits for last week, and that his delivery from large TV teleprompters at the back of the hall was at times stilted. But – like Ed Miliband’s deliberate attempt to provoke a reaction from the press and energy companies – this actually plays into the message that the Prime Minister wanted to convey.
For the PM’s speech was focused heavily on seriousness and, in turn, credibility. The bread and butter of Cameron’s speech were intentionally straightforward and easily digestible promises to help businesses and – the slogan you couldn’t avoid – hardworking people.
That’s because the Tories are betting that, while Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze might be popular, the public see it as something that’s too good to be true that he cannot credibly deliver. This was illustrated perfectly by the PM’s line – developed after focus group testing – attacking “Red Ed and his Blue Peter economy … all sticking plasters and quick fixes.” It was a point that David Cameron – and almost every other Conservative at every event this week – repeated both loudly and often.
To a certain extent they did this at the expense of fresh thinking. There was just one major announcement in the PM’s speech: a manifesto pledge on welfare for the under 25s (this potentially expensive policy, to be finalised after a review by Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood, would see their entitlement to benefits taken away and replaced with training or education programmes). This was echoed in the conference fringe, where it was far more common to hear criticism of Labour than any concrete new ideas for the future.
And that’s essentially because the Conservative’s strategy hasn’t changed. Or rather, the party has made a conscious decision not to change course; not to respond to Miliband with headline grabbing measures on energy prices; and not to start talking about cost of living in isolation from the rest of the economic debate. Ultimately, the Conservatives are likely to need more to deal with Labour’s cost of living arguments, but they will be hoping that a recovering economy will continue to bolster their economic credentials.