On balance, the Conservatives did what they had to this week – not get into a row about Europe, not drop any major clangers and, most importantly, explain clearly how they were going to get on top of the public finances. And therefore, it was George Osborne’s speech that was the pivotal moment of the week, not David Cameron’s.
Osborne is not a great orator by a long stretch but for the second time in recent years it has been him who has delivered the major policy ann-ouncement of the conference. He used the wartime rhetoric of collective endeavour (we’re all in this together) and shared pain. The main plank of his battle plan is the siege of Whitehall. The main effort is slashing the cost of Whitehall by a third by the end of the next Parliament.
This is will be a war of attrition and the Conservatives will almost certainly be worn down before Whitehall.
Indeed, despite the mythology, Whitehall did not shrink under Margaret Thatcher – it grew. It has certainly grown under Labour. It probably cannot grow in the next Parliament but a cut of one third in five years?
Osborne has already over-committed in other areas – there was a row on the inheritance tax cut (it will happen apparently but not in the first Tory Budget). The commitment made to Labour spending plans is pie in the sky now. Will this be the same?
In contrast with the Blitz spirit that Osborne seemed to want to evoke, David Cameron wanted to offer a glimpse of the view from the mountain- tops. Or perhaps that should be the view from atop the White Cliffs while the bluebirds swoop overhead.
Cameron explained how Britain would become a better place under the Tories – less state power, more personal and community responsibility. His attacks on the failure of Labour on poverty and the perverse incentives of the welfare state were compelling. The impassioned rhetoric on social justice went down well. But there was not much on how or when this will be done – mostly a lot of why it should be the Conservatives that do it. This was largely the aim.
But in the process, he evoked many of the qualities of a Mr Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, c. 1996.
John Rowland is an analyst at Cicero Consulting