David Cameron has just delivered his first speech to the Conservative conference as Prime Minister and the response in the conference centre has been muted.
Despite the excited buzz that preceded his speech — with the main hall full to capacity over an hour before it began — it seems that Cameron’s central message is still failing to capture the excitement of his own party fully (and certainly not that of the country at large).
In many ways, this was a good speech, effectively delivered. It was essentially Cameron’s attempt to frame the mission of his government: refiguring the relationship between individual and state; transferring power to the local level.
It’s easy to be dismissive of the “big society” idea but there’s no questioning Cameron’s dedication to it. Even though it did not fare well during the election campaign (despite being launched to great aplomb) and many in the party believe that it should be dropped in the face of voter incomprehension, the Prime Minister has doggedly persisted in trying to explain what his vision means. Phrases such as “the big society spirit blasting through” will do little to clarify the meaning to the general public, however.
“Your country needs you,” Cameron declared, channelling Kitchener. But this was a strange leader’s speech: Cameron soon switched his message to that of Marvin Gaye — “it takes two”, government and public, to make his vision happen. At times, he sounded as if he was pleading with the country for acceptance and help. During the final section of the long address, when he turned his attention to this message of localism and “bottom-up, not top-down” change, the previously excited crowd seemed strangely muted, perhaps bemused.
In the conference hall, the most jubilant cheers were reserved for the Labour-bashing (at one point delivered in a staccato rap that is crying out for a YouTube remix), criticism of the EU and the revelation that Margaret Thatcher will celebrate her 85th birthday at No 10.
This was a sincere address but the “big society” message still hasn’t caught the imagination of the party. You must wonder, then, how exactly the Prime Minister plans to convince the rest of the country of the need for self-reliance, particularly as spending cuts begin to hit.