Today was not a good day for David Cameron. The controversy in the morning over lines in his speech referring to personal debt threatened to overshadow the address itself – and when it came, it was rather underwhelming.
Cameron looked tired and sounded hoarse, which was unfortunate given his emphasis on “can-do optimism”. There wasn’t much here in the way of policy, simply an attempt to encourage positivity – a tough call in the face of inconvenient facts, such as the news today that growth figures are being revised down.
Ed Miliband was not once mentioned by name, but if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, he can be feeling very flattered indeed. While Cameron rubbished the Labour leader’s “saints and sinners” idea, he echoed his language on “vested interests” and the “something for nothing” culture. It is an interesting, if bizarre spectacle to see the leaders jostling for exactly the same ground.
Strategically, the speech did little except to continue the attack on Labour’s record, ignoring the fact that before the banking crash, the Tories had pledged to match Labour’s spending plans. More worryingly for Labour, he also honed in on Ed Balls. Cameron channelled Nick Clegg when he said “we must never, ever let these people near our economy again”. In much the same vein as George Osborne in his speech on Monday, Cameron painted Balls as a basket case; somebody mad, to be laughed at. Labour should work hard on counteracting this tactic before it begins to stick with the public.
While Cameron highlighted his socially liberal credentials on gay marriage, cross-racial adoption, and – with genuine enthusiasm – international aid and educational standards, in many places this was an uncharacteristically right-wing speech. Comments about “bureaucrats in Brussels” wanting to stop diabetics from driving could have been taken straight from the Daily Mail, as could those about the health and safety culture that hindered a school from purchasing highlighters. “Britannia didn’t rule the waves in armbands,” he jeered. Some right-wing populism is to be expected, but was an odd tone from a Prime Minister at the height of worries over the economy.
“In these difficult times, it is leadership that we need,” said Cameron, summing up the scope of his distinctly average speech. Perhaps, given the remit – encouraging optimism when no-one feels particularly optimistic – average was the best he could have hoped for.