A distinctly average speech from Cameron

The PM fails to set the conference hall alight, calling for "optimism" as growth figures are revised

Today was not a good day for David Cameron. The controversy in the morning over lines in his speech referring to personal debt threatened to overshadow the address itself - and when it came, it was rather underwhelming.

Cameron looked tired and sounded hoarse, which was unfortunate given his emphasis on "can-do optimism". There wasn't much here in the way of policy, simply an attempt to encourage positivity - a tough call in the face of inconvenient facts, such as the news today that growth figures are being revised down.

Ed Miliband was not once mentioned by name, but if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, he can be feeling very flattered indeed. While Cameron rubbished the Labour leader's "saints and sinners" idea, he echoed his language on "vested interests" and the "something for nothing" culture. It is an interesting, if bizarre spectacle to see the leaders jostling for exactly the same ground.

Strategically, the speech did little except to continue the attack on Labour's record, ignoring the fact that before the banking crash, the Tories had pledged to match Labour's spending plans. More worryingly for Labour, he also honed in on Ed Balls. Cameron channelled Nick Clegg when he said "we must never, ever let these people near our economy again". In much the same vein as George Osborne in his speech on Monday, Cameron painted Balls as a basket case; somebody mad, to be laughed at. Labour should work hard on counteracting this tactic before it begins to stick with the public.

While Cameron highlighted his socially liberal credentials on gay marriage, cross-racial adoption, and - with genuine enthusiasm - international aid and educational standards, in many places this was an uncharacteristically right-wing speech. Comments about "bureaucrats in Brussels" wanting to stop diabetics from driving could have been taken straight from the Daily Mail, as could those about the health and safety culture that hindered a school from purchasing highlighters. "Britannia didn't rule the waves in armbands," he jeered. Some right-wing populism is to be expected, but was an odd tone from a Prime Minister at the height of worries over the economy.

"In these difficult times, it is leadership that we need," said Cameron, summing up the scope of his distinctly average speech. Perhaps, given the remit - encouraging optimism when no-one feels particularly optimistic - average was the best he could have hoped for.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.