It was the sudden appearance of Charles Montgomery Burns, masquerading as the Mayor of New York, which offered a clue that this would be a Prime Ministerial speech with a difference. The job of any Tory party leader on the last day of conference has traditionally been to send delegates out onto the streets, jaws dripping with blood after being fed the raw meat of intolerance for an hour.
But David Cameron turned that on its head this morning, with sixty minutes that left them confused and a danger to any plump passers by. The PM had already adopted the now traditional route of putting out today’s speech yesterday to allow those turning up to know in advance most of what he was going to say. Those who did decide to make the effort had obviously come expecting to be sent to whatever counts as the barricades in Tory Party circles. But the omens were bad from the start, when reports started to come in claiming there were more people queuing at Birmingham New Street for trains out of town than for seats for their leader’s words of wisdom.
After the Mayor of London had spent yesterday feeding delegates out of his hands, you could see they were somewhat confused by the sudden emergence of his New York counterpart, Michael Bloomberg, as official warm-up man for their leader. Where Boris had them rolling in the aisles, Michael could only manage them rolling their eyes as he rolled through an ad for his city and a couple more for the PM.
Whether this was a cunning plan to bore them into submission or to set the speaking bar so low that even Lassie could qualify, was yet to be seen as Mr B tottered off and the lights were thankfully lowered. By now, delegates were so confused that they broke into applause for the scene shifters as they swooped in to replace one lectern with another and polish up Dave’s autocue. The Prime Ministerial minders had already let it be known that today’s speech would be serious words for serious times and when he finally arrived on stage, fashionably late, his pallor gave off that intention – although he had also been for an infamous Birmingham balti the night before.
And from the off, it was clear he did not intend to play this one for laughs and delegates wriggled uncomfortably as he told them tough times are still ahead. He mentioned Chancellor George, happily escaped abroad, and they sat on their hands. He half-heartedly pressed a couple of the usual buttons, welfare and trade unions, which would normally bring them to their feet but they shuffled into hardly more than polite applause.
Having been stung by Ed Miliband’s constant reminders that he leads the party of the rich – much to the satisfaction of many delegates – he said he didn’t look at the label on the tin but what was in it. As some turned to their neighbours for guidance, the PM declared he was not here to defend privilege but to spread it and that at last provoked the first stirrings of enthusiasm from his listeners. Cut-aways by the TV cameras showed his cabinet desperately trying to show interest, none more so than new Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, whose appointment must surely have caused as much confusion to Tory Party activists as the rest of the country.
The purpose of the speech, we were told earlier, was to mark out the Tories as the party of the “strivers” and certainly by now many were striving to look interested. With the appointed hour now finally up, and Dave’s throat possibly affected by balti burn, it was left to newly-appointed minister Anna Soubry to be first to her feet to lead the spontaneous standing ovation booked for such occasions.
Dave quickly gathered up Sam Cam and was out of the door before anyone changed their mind. “It’s not where you come from the counts, it’s where you’re going,” he had said minutes earlier in his speech – and he wasn’t telling us.