Pulling the puppet’s strings

Writing Cameron's speech has become a Babelian muddle

So we come to the conference speech. In the beginning it was simplicity itself. Letwin and I would meet for a decent lunch and knock out Dave's words over coffee. And a pretty fair fist we made of it, too.

Inevitably, however, the more successful DC becomes, the more people want to put words into his mouth. Instead of a meeting of two true blue minds, it is now a Babelian muddle. Every Tom, Dick and (token female) Harriet in Central Office is encouraged to send in memos which, like unsolicited manuscripts to a literary agency, pile up unregarded in the corner. Then the shadow cabinet weigh in with the lines they deem not worthy of inclusion in their own dismal speeches. Finally, and not before time, the members of the inner sanctum gather and start with a blank sheet of paper.

The meeting opens with a few riffs from Letwin to help define the mood. Gove then reads from copious notes he has made on "the state of the nation". Finkelstein will chip in with a piece of cheap polemic which - every time a coconut - turns up again, verbatim, in Wednesday's Thunderer. Coulson will chunter. And I, more often than not, snatch 40 or so winks in the leather armchair. It's a wonder we ever get anything done. But we do.

Generally, with Cameron speeches, if the writing is graceful, judicious and understated, it will have been written by Letwin or me. If it's impenetrable, it's Gove. If it is clunky, Coulson's your man. DC, gratifyingly, has often said to me that my writing is the fine china, to be taken out on special occasions. It is no coincidence that he relied on me to top and tail his Blackpool conference speech. The core Cameron belief in "old-style liberal conservatism", his hope for "a partnership of open societies" and commitment to "The Social Reformation" are all Donald coinages. In my own small way, I have filled D's mouth with golden phrases, and in the process have become his moral compass.

The bugger is that, with the speech due on Thursday, I'm jiggered as to what to have the puppet say in Manchester. We've done compassionate conservatism and conciliatory conservatism and liberal conservatism and pretty much every variety of conservatism . . . apart from conservative conservatism. Which has a nice ring to it. But is the country really ready for conservative conservatism? Can No-Notes Dave pronounce it without stumble?

When he does, you will know who to credit.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter