CC: 15:44 Not a barnstormer – but I doubt whether the Birmingham Symphony Hall is quite the venue for barnstormers. The hall is too sedate to warm up properly. Delegates seem to feel more comfortable clapping politely and reaching for their opera glasses than getting geed up. Yesterday, a teacher in the hall managed to get the audience whooping and cheering – but then it was dead again within moments.
Cameron did manage to generate a few flashes of heat from the crowd. When the AV referendum and Europe came up, Cameron won the audience over with some red meat. But the combination of the symphony hall – and the Big Society passages, which weren’t pulse-raisers – kept the response low-key.
That said, Cameron got applause on most of his applause lines and the party faithful seem perfectly cheerful. It was actually a better written speech than most of Cameron’s conference efforts. Yes, there was the tooth fairy naffness, but there was also a very clear narrative – something he struggled to find in opposition.
As Alex says, however, this is a speech that might not be possible in a year’s time. As public services start to close, peons to self-reliance won’t go down that well. A low-key end to a strangely flat conference.
AB 15.38 Well it is all over. The Tories are on their feet. It seems to have gone down very well in the hall. Oh my — they are now playing “it takes two” — a reference to the closing riff in the speech. This is showbiz coalition style. Overall this speech was delivered with aplomb and there was certainly a clear narrative. This was not a Brown-like address, cluttered with mini-policy initiatives. It was Cameron’s effort to frame the mission of his government, while he still has the attention of the public. Whatever you might think of the Big Society message, there is no doubting his commitment to it. Cameron is a believer. But it takes about 60m to deliver it. And you have to wonder whether lectures on self-reliance and community spirit will go down as well once the public spending axe falls.
CC 15:29 One of the really big questions about Cameron and the Big Society is the extent to which it is possible to get charities to run things and citizens to take an interest in the world around them. There’s reason for scepticism about whether some of the amazing people who already give their time and energy to making the rest of our lives better can scale up their operations to a national level. But it’s much easier to talk about them than about privatising services and allowing for-profit companies in to start winning contracts.
CC 15:27 Eric Pickles was profiled by the FT as our weekly “Man in the News”… In 1988. The former Bradford council leader has certainly shown a mastery of his brief since taking power.
AB 15.22 Cameron has wheeled out the dreaded story of the single mother who is only able to keep 5p in every pounds she earns because of the way benefits are withdrawn. This poverty trap is obviously a bad thing. But very few people find themselves in this position — as few as 100,000. And if they were willing to work more than 16 hours a week, they’re usually able to earn more by working more. It is laudable for Cameron and others to tackle this issue. But the point about high marginal withdrawal rates is that they save money so that you can be generous to the poorest. Making work pay also requires abolishing rules that encourage people to work more than 16 hours. Are we really keen on making work pay for people who only want to work four hours a week? This change may convince a lot of people to work less, not more.
CC: 15:20 Recommitment to recognising marriage in the tax system. This policy looked like it had been sidelined in the coalition. But, this week, in the aftermath of the child benefit argument, it seems to have had a second wind.
CC: 15:17 The Conservative line on the deficit is that there is no alternative. To cut slower would lead to calamity. It’s going to be a tough line to hold when people like Martin Wolf think it is flat-out wrong. There’s also a lot of ground between Labour and the Tories. The FT editorial line, for example, is the government should plough ahead with the cuts, but have a plan B that it can deploy in case there’s a prolonged recession.
AB 15.13 We’re on to the deficit. He’s using some of the usual riffs on Britain borrowing more than the cost of the NHS this year. But at the end of the sentence there was a bit of a strange dig at all those investors who are confident enough to by gilts. “Everything in our hospitals and surgeries,” he said, “paid for with borrowed money, much of it from abroad.” Scary as this sounds, you have to wonder why he has a problem with foreign investors. Is he still upset with George Soros from his experience a Whitehall special adviser on Black Wednesday. Seems like a bit of a cheap shot. But it could work with this crowd.
CC: 15:11 This is a set-piece event to a favourable audience, and yet Cameron’s explanation of the Big Society is very amorphous. That’s why it didn’t really work on the doorstep.
CC: 15:06 Cameron gives an anecdote about a little girl sending her tooth fairy earnings in to help repair the deficit. With anecdotes that saccharine, the Treasury might get a little windfall from people losing teeth across the country.
AB 15.01 One line was striking on the defence review: “we will match our commitments with the resources we’ve got.” That is an important statement of intent that may not go down well in the Treasury. The big problem with the 1997 review was that we set out an ambitious posture for the armed forces without providing full funding for it. Cameron wants to maintain roughly the same spectrum of capabilities, while still paying down the deficit. That means defence will have to emerge with a relatively generous settlement. Indeed the budget may even rise in cash terms over the next four years to match Cameron’s foreign policy ambitions.
AB 14.58: One of Cameron’s cabinet allies told us this week that setting a clear exit strategy from Afghanistan was one of his two most important achievements in office. There was a big debate over pulling out of Sangin and over setting a 2015 timetable for leaving the country. But as this speech makes clear, Cameron showed he was determined to oversee a withdrawal this parliament. I suspect most troops may be home even sooner than he is suggesting at the moment.
CC: 14:55 A moment of pedantry. Of the “200 new academies” that Cameron has boasted of, 64 were actually set up by Labour.
CC: 14.54 Cameron is defending Nick Clegg’s role as a partner in the coalition. Not sure that claps from the Tory faithful will help Clegg with his own grassroots…
CC: 14:51 Contriving to mention Margaret Thatcher at the end of any line in any Tory conference speech is a guaranteed, cast-iron way to turn whatever you said into an applause line.
AB 14.48 Cameron is using a script this time. He has clearly decided not to repeat his party trick of learning lines. But some old tricks survive. He’s warmed up the audience by heaping praise on his predecessors as leader, flagging up Maggie’s birthday (never fails to lift the spirits) and bringing the conference to its feet in tribute to a 96 year old activists.
CC 14:46 The main man is up. Cameron is reminding the activists that, although they might not have won a straight majority, they are in government. That’s not exactly a wooden spoon.
AB: 14.38 The Politburo have assembled on stage and the film has begun. Unfortunately for the cabinet members, they are seats are looking at the audience so they have to crane their necks to see the propaganda on the screen behind them. It may be some cruel joke by the UUP set designers. The audience look gripped. Lots of crowd-pleasing shots of Cameron looking dynamic, winning votes on the campaign trail, and forming a coalition. The usual stirring stuff.
AB: 14:32: What does Cameron need to do with this speech? The first priority will be to sell the coalition to his activists. They are all mainly behind him and he will be pushing at an open door. But this is the first chance he’s had to talk to them about power-sharing and he needs to dip their hands in the blood before times get tough. The second priority is to win them over on painful measures like child benefits. This party supports cuts but it is suddenly dawning on them that it may involve their wallets being hit. The last thing is to give them a glimpse of the sunlit uplands — the good times after the spending restraint is over.
As Alex says, the UUP are the Tories’ partners in Northern Ireland. The Conservative party doesn’t contest seats in the province, but it has an electoral pact with them. During the election, there were endless meetings and disputes about whose logo would appear where. If only they had chosen this logo before.
While we wait for Cameron to take the stage, it is worth noting the incredible new Tory backdrop. The green tree logo — brought in by Cameron — has been turned into a Union flag tree. This I supposed to show that the party is governing for the “national interest”. But we can’t help but see the remarkable resemblance to the logo of the Ulster Unionist Party — the Tory partners in Northern Ireland. You suspect this is more by accident than design.
The hall is filling up. The photographers are already in position. Cameron is about to emerge to give his first conference speech as prime minister. Given the flap over child benefits we’ve had so far, this should be fun.
Stay with us for a live commentary. I’m afraid that Jim has retired hurt to London after losing his voice. So in his place we have recruited Chris Cook, our education correspondent, who in a former life worked for Conservative Central Office. He promises to spill the beans.