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5 October 2011

Political sketch: being David Cameron

The day the Great Communicator found himself off-message.

By Peter McHugh

There are 22 millionaires in the Cabinet and today one of them — their leader in fact — said it was time for all of us to pay off our credit card bills…Then he changed his mind. Well actually he didn’t change his mind; he just changed his words. Confused?

Then try being David Cameron (for indeed it was he), as we finally moved from the era of boom and bust to a new one of just bust. His message came as a bit of a shock to the Tory faithful who had gathered in Manchester to hear how the undeserving poor, a few immigrants, anybody under 21 in Tottenham, and the gypsies down the lane, were due a bit of a slap.

But no one had warned them that fully paid up — or not as it would seem — members of the credit-card carrying section of society would also be fingered. They hadn’t counted Dave telling them that everyone was in the doodoo, not just the usual suspects lounging about in their no-doubt-nicked shellsuits in those parts of Manchester city centre still open to the public.

Inside the ring of steel protecting the government it’s been a bit of a confusing week for those committed to the Conservative cause. It had started so well with a good old-fashioned “Tories out” demonstration to kick off the conference. But the warmth engendered by such happy memories was soon dissipated as little sustenance was provided for the meat eaters; the real members for whom Mrs. T will always be the benchmark.

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She always told them it was everyone else’s fault, but Dave is finding that a bit of a hard sell in the worst economic crisis for 80 years. Thanks to the Greeks he can’t blame the Scottish Sulk anymore, and as for Ed M, even some of Dave’s own side say the Labour leader is coming up with a better message — although, luckily for the PM, delivering it almost incomprehensibly.

But incomprehension seemed to be the order of the day when even the Great Communicator found himself off-message. He was caught out after trying for two bites of the speech cherry, releasing choice morsels to the press in advance of his delivery. In version one he gave the country a lecture on debt management, saying “all of us” should pay off our credit card bills. But as he went through the morning practicing the serious face rich people use to tell the less well-off hard times are coming, the resident ordinary person employed by Tory Party Central Office warned them that lectures from the loaded sit badly with the vast mass of the less-than-lucky, and so it was out.

Rapid re-writing — not to mention the extra pan-stick needed to cover this embarrassment — meant that Dave slid on to the stage to a less than full hall 30 minutes later than planned. Cheerleaders had tried to get the mood going with videos of Dave’s Greatest Hits as they prayed late-comers from lunch would swell the audience.

But it was obvious from the start this was not going to be the usual love-in for someone whose own side seems increasingly aware that the economic slings and arrows have hardly singled him out. For one normally so deft at crowd management he seemed singularly uneasy with what he had to say. In times passed, a substantial bashing of Labour, denunciation of the unions, a bit of law and and order and a pop at the judges would have been enough to get them going in the aisles.

But like we said of his best friend George Osborne on Monday, it looked as if he, too, couldn’t be arsed. He picked up a bit of support here and there with ritual mentions of the hate groups, but you could tell his heart was not in it. Sam Cam sat in an aisle seat with all the look of someone intent on a quick exit if the matrons alongside started to dig out their knitting. Applause that would traditionally be emptied in sacks from the ceiling gave new emphasis to the word “desultory” as Dave looked like he wanted to be somewhere else and his listeners agreed.

You could tell they were foxed. He mentioned the long-term unemployed and said he planned to spend money helping them. He praised gay marriage and even ticked-off Labour for booing Tony Blair. He praised China and India and Ghana to an audience which still hasn’t got over the fact they still don’t own them, and even on Europe the best he could do was promise not to join the euro.

Backing Boris for Mayor of London got more response than setting Libya free. The speech, said the minders, was about setting an upbeat and optimistic tone at the end of a week when some of the contributions made it looked as if the undead had taken over the conference centre.

“Remember it’s not the size of the dog in the fight that counts, it’s the size of the fight in the dog”, he said, leaving those late back from lunch looking even more certain they had come to the wrong place. There are some, he said, who believe our best days are behind us; getting an inadvertent nod from the white-haired in the hall. And suddenly that was that, and he and Sam were out of there so fast that some of the more infirm members didn’t even manage the standing bit that goes with the ovation.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.