Live blog: Cameron's conference speech

Below is a live reaction blog to the Conservative leader's speech to the annual party conference. This does not pretend to be a comprehensive report of the speech, but some random thoughts as it goes along.

Pre-speech

- Nick Robinson (who has seen the speech) says Cameron may "address" the tragic death of his son Ivan in a particularly "personal" speech. Is it right to give reference to such things in politics? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

- Robinson said the only other high-profile Tories apart from Cameron are George Osborne (is he really?) and Boris Johnson. He forgot Ken Clarke.

- Andrew Neil has just introduced William Hague -- who is in turn introducing the shadow cabinet and Cameron -- as "a wonderful speaker, a funny speaker".

- The Tories have persuaded "Bono" to "speak".

- A video is showing highlights of Cameron's brief political career.

- Robinson says Cameron wants to portray himself as consistently a "moderniser". In a classic piece of lazy punditry, Neil refers to "the early part of the modernisation project [Cameron] launched". Did he? Was it real change? See my column this week.

- I was slammed across the blogosphere for daring to suggest that Johnson and Cameron are tense rivals (see "at breaking point" piece), and yet this has just been confirmed by Robinson, who says an aide to the latter sent an obscene text to the former.

Speech

- "I want to get straight to the point": same opening line as Gordon Brown last year.

- Into Afghanistan early. Calls for a "ruthless, relentless focus" on Afghanistan, insults Bob Ainsworth as a "second-rate substitute" and praises Cameron's old leadership rival Liam Fox.

- Confirms General Sir Richard Dannatt will sit in the Lords and serve when (if) the Tories win.

- Long ovation after Afghanistan passage.

- "All women candidates; campaigning on the environment; the party of the NHS" -- a substance-free claim to modernisation.

- Calls Osborne's speech "magnificent". Were we watching the same thing?

- He is talking about the death of his son. I am sorry (and I know many will disagree) but I find this gratuitous and distasteful and inappropriate. A passing reference. Wrong.

- "Family, community, country": this is what Cameron is about.

- Whatever the media love-in to come, this is not -- yet -- a great speech.

- "I want every child to have the chances I've had." How, without redistribution of wealth and equalisation of the education system?

- "Why is [sic] our politics broken?" He blames the government. Is that not cheap, given the cross-party expenses scandal?

- An old-style bang-bang-bang attack on "big government".

- "Rebuilding responsibility": what does that mean?

- This is a very family-oriented speech, for better or worse.

- Into national debt and the economic situation. Zero acknowledgement that capitalism and free-marketeerism have themselves come into question.

- Cameron repeatedly refers to "progressive" policies -- such as setting an example and cutting politicians' salaries -- but see this week's Politics column for an examination of his claim to be "progressive".

- Growth, he says, is going to come from "new businesses".

- Cameron just rather slapped down his more senior and more popular shadow business secretary, Ken Clarke, by referring to him only as someone he will be asking: "What are you doing" to free up business. Clarke looks impassive.

- Cameron launches an attack on Gordon Brown, saying he presided over "the system of regulation" that caused the financial crisis: yet the Tories have always been opposed to regulation, and remain so.

- Rather thin passage on sport -- "rugby and cricket, too" -- for token positivity.

- Now back to attacks on "big government".

- Cameron has paid handsome tribute to Iain Duncan Smith, the Prodigal Son of Westminster, who is wrongly seen as the master of "social justice", when in fact he is just an old-style pro-family Tory who -- like Cameron -- rejects the redistribution of wealth needed for "social justice". He confirms, as I reported in my column this week, that IDS will return to government if the Tories win.

- Cameron gets passionate (or mock-passionate) for the first time as he attacks Labour over poverty, claiming that it "falls to modern Conservatives" to help the poor. How?

- Good line: "We have got to stop treating adults like children and children like adults".

- Cameron is referring to another email he got from a member of the public. Good to know he is in touch with the people directly.

- There doesn't seem to be any real structure to this speech: we are back to family now, and welfare.

- On to health: "My family owes so much to the National Health Service . . ." But remember, this is the man who wrote the 2005 Tory manfiesto containing the plan to airlift richer patients to the front of the queue.

- He has said "big government" at least ten times. Is this the big idea for Tory "modernisation"?

- "This party is the party of the NHS, today, tomorrow, now, always." But not yesterday.

- On to crime. Pays tribute to Chris Grayling, who pretended to watch The Wire, before more appropriately referencing Margaret Tebbit, who was injured in the IRA's Brighton bombign 25 years ago.

- Now education. Discipline. Streaming. Competitive sport. "These are all things that you find in a private school." This will please the grass roots. Repeats his desire to "bust open that state monopoly" and increase "competition".

- Of the Union, Cameron claims to be "passionate . . . I will never do anything that puts it at risk." But see this.

- A nasty little switch from the UK Union to "mass immigration" and the "pressure" it involves.

- Attacks ID cards, CCTV and so on -- but it took David Davis, who later self-combusted, to win the argument with Michael Gove and Osborne within the shadow cabinet over civil liberties.

- He is now on to parliament, "a laughing stock". But he opposes the key to change: electoral reform.

- He says "the job of building a new politics" is "not over". Has it begun?

- He talks about "accountability" without mentioning anything specific about Westminster reform, nothing new.

- Swiftly on to Europe and a "progressive reform plan" for the EU. "Return to democratic and accountable politics those powers the EU should not have." Now pays tribute to Hague, but fails to reiterate the promise of a referendum that, a senior shadow cabinet minister tells me, "will never happen". Instead, appears surely to distance himself, saying Hague is "the man leading the campaign for the referendum".

- "It is the unpredictable events" that will test Cameron, he admits, so it's your "character" and "temperament" and "judgement" that matter. Well, he's said to have a bit of a temper, and he got Iraq wrong, but we'll see.

- A repeat of Blair's "ask me my three main priorities". Cameron is now concluding with an "ask me what a Conservative government will stand for. It is this . . ."

- A repeat of: "Yes, it will be a steep climb, but the view from the summit will be worth it."

- "I see a country where the poorest children go to the best schools not the worst schools." How?

- "You made it happen." The final soundbite. A little presumptuous?

Speech ends.

Conclusion:

Now, I have no doubt that this speech will be well received in the media world, which is dominated by the right and, in some cases, willing on a Tory victory. But it was not a great speech. It was competent, and he did not put a foot wrong (though I thought palming off the fated referendum pledge on Hague was a bit dodgy). But the rhetoric was not soaring, and this is not a great statesman, and his front bench is not a government-in-waiting.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.