Cameron's speech will have pleased the Tories - but few others

The Prime Minister spoke as if he inhabited an alternate reality.

David Cameron's speech was the most defensive he has delivered since becoming Conservative leader. In an address devoid of policy announcements, he confronted head on the strongest arguments against his government. To the charge that its obsession with austerity had tipped Britain back into recession, he replied: "our deficit reduction plan is not an alternative to a growth plan: it’s the very foundation of our growth plan." To the charge that the Tories were, once again, the party of the rich, he insisted that the abolition of the 50p tax rate would help, not hurt, the poorest. "When people earn money, it’s their money.  Not the government’s money: their money," he declared with the conviction of a true Thatcherite.

The hall lapped it up, but Cameron's speech will have fallen flat in most of the country. The Prime Minister frequently spoke as if he inhabited an alternate reality in which the country wasn't in recession, a million young people weren't unemployed, and living standards weren't falling at the fastest rate since 1920s. Warning that it was "sink or swim" time for Britain, Cameron presented himself as a man confronting hard truths. But he avoided the truth that, without a change of course, the UK faces years of anaemic growth. We were reminded again that the deficit had been reduced by a quarter and that a million new private sector jobs had been created (although 196,000 of these were simply reclassified from the public sector). But the government's failure to deliver growth, indeed, its success in delivering recession, means that borrowing has increased by 22% this year, while, after falling in recent months, unemployment is forecast to rise in 2013.

Continuing his casual relationship with reality, the Prime Minister spoke as the leader of an imaginary Conservative government, not a coalition. The only mention the Liberal Democrats received was when he reminded the hall that they had promised to cut NHS spending at the last election. But his speech did little to advance the quest for a Tory majority. If he is to succeed where he failed in 2010, Cameron needs to persuade an increasingly sceptical electorate that he has a plan for growth and that he can govern for the many, not just the few. He did neither today. 

David Cameron delivers his speech at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images/

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What will Labour's new awkward squad do next?

What does the future hold for the party's once-rising-stars?

For years, Jeremy Corbyn was John McDonnell’s only friend in Parliament. Now, Corbyn is the twice-elected Labour leader, and McDonnell his shadow chancellor. The crushing leadership election victory has confirmed Corbyn-supporting MPs as the new Labour elite. It has also created a new awkward squad.   

Some MPs – including some vocal critics of Corbyn – are queuing up to get back in the shadow cabinet (one, Sarah Champion, returned during the leadership contest). Chi Onwurah, who spoke out on Corbyn’s management style, never left. But others, most notably the challenger Owen Smith, are resigning themselves to life on the back benches. 

So what is a once-rising-star MP to do? The most obvious choice is to throw yourself into the issue the Corbyn leadership doesn’t want to talk about – Brexit. The most obvious platform to do so on is a select committee. Chuka Umunna has founded Vote Leave Watch, a campaign group, and is running to replace Keith Vaz on the Home Affairs elect committee. Emma Reynolds, a former shadow Europe minister, is running alongside Hilary Benn to sit on the newly-created Brexit committee. 

Then there is the written word - so long as what you write is controversial enough. Rachel Reeves caused a stir when she described control on freedom of movement as “a red line” in Brexit negotiations. Keir Starmer is still planning to publish his long-scheduled immigration report. Alison McGovern embarked on a similar tour of the country

Other MPs have thrown themselves into campaigns, most notably refugee rights. Stella Creasy is working with Alf Dubs on his amendment to protect child refugees. Yvette Cooper chairs Labour's refugee taskforce.

The debate about whether Labour MPs should split altogether is ongoing, but the warnings of history aside, some Corbyn critics believe this is exactly what the leadership would like them to do. Richard Angell, deputy director of Progress, a centrist group, said: “Parts of the Labour project get very frustrated that good people Labour activists are staying in the party.”

One reason to stay in Labour is the promise of a return of shadow cabinet elections, a decision currently languishing with the National Executive Committee. 

But anti-Corbyn MPs may still yet find their ability to influence policies blocked. Even if the decision goes ahead, the Corbyn leadership is understood to be planning a root and branch reform of party institutions, to be announced in the late autumn. If it is consistent with his previous rhetoric, it will hand more power to the pro-Corbyn grassroots members. The members of Labour's new awkward squad have seized on elections as a way to legitimise their voices. But with Corbyn in charge, they might get more democracy than they bargained for.