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.