Thursday, 6 October 2011

Cameron's 'soggy' attitude

'Keynote': unlike Boris' speech, Cameron's was muddled, overdrafted and uninspiring
As a conference virgin, there wasn't a great deal I could compare this year's gathering to - other than a few distantly recalled TV soundbites - but I'd say it's telling I spent the vast majority of my time in the Freedom Zone.

Organised by Simon Richards of the Freedom Association, the events took place entirely outside the security zone and were notable for their focus on actual discussion and on topics banned in the official site - namely Europe, scrapping the 50p tax band and how to more radically reduce government spending.

So it came as little surprise to me to hear, from the press as much as fellow delegates, that this had been the driest, most controlled and lobby-dominated conference yet. Still, as a fresher greatly enjoying what is still an intensely social (and alcohol-fuelled) occasion, I had few complaints.

That is until Cameron's speech. I forgave the snore-inducing 'business forum' before Osborne's speech as I'm told it occurred because he was running late. The very idea a Conservative party could orchestrate such a horrendously dry and scripted non-debate as part of Plan A (forgive the pun) was nonsense, I thought. An inverted pyramid of piffle, if you like.

But I was horrified by the Mao-esque, choreographed propaganda of Cameron's pre-speech 'warm-up'. If his intention was to make me incredibly angry with him before he'd even stepped on stage, he succeeded with flying colours.

The showcasing of his National Citizen Service project was incredibly twee and presented by a man who had not only convinced himself it was 'the most important decision by any government in the last 50 years' but who pronounced the word 'think' 'fink' - not something I ever though I'd hear at a Conservative conference. It was reminiscent of the most boring and oppressive school assembly.

And then there was the speech itself which, I have to agree with the Left on this one, exposed Cameron's inner Flashman - that arrogant, condescending, paternalistic aspect of his character that has been growing in confidence of late.

How dare he, I thought, tell us Britain has a 'can't-do sogginess'? Really, Flashman? As a journalist I spend a great deal of my time speaking to small business owners and the one thing they all tell me is they're dying to grow their way out of our economic malaise. They regale me with their grand designs for that second shop, for taking on more employees, for making that push to go regional.

And what is it holding back their 'can do' attitude? Tax, Mr Cameron. Tax. They can't open that second café because of punitive business rates and they load more work onto already stretched staff rather than employing more because of expensive National Insurance commitments.

Yet tax wasn't mentioned once. That doesn't sound like 'doing everything in our power' to create jobs. But then, that's the problem - Cameron has fallen for that great delusion of governments - that they even have the power to 'create' jobs. All they can do is remove impediments and the way to do that is t cut taxes.

Then of course there was the painfully feigned frustration over Brussels diktats. Followed - hilariously if it wasn't so depressing - by the bizarre claim that the British government was going to single-handedly reform the entire mechanism of the European Union. It was head in hand time.

I don't believe for a second Cameron thinks he can reform the EU. And I don't believe he's really all that frustrated by emails about getting diabetics off the road. He knows the only solution to the problem of the EU is an in-out referendum. A move Flashman has explicitly ruled out because he knows as well as Joe Public what the outcome will be.

And referring to the difference between private and state schools as 'apartheid' was unforgivable. My jaw genuinely dropped at that moment.

I found it interesting, too, that Cameron mentioned the fuel duty reduction. I would have been embarrassed to. Reducing the cost of fuel by 1p for one day is not something to boast about. Particularly when 80% of the total is tax.

Overall the speech was rambling, unfocused and, frankly, a downer on what had been an otherwise wonderful week. A massive contrast to Boris' early morning slot on Tuesday which so electrified the audience. Focused, powerful, unscripted, amusing and sincere - they were the words of a man who was proud of what he had achieved, believed in where he was going and didn't need an autocue to do it. Here's hoping Toby Young doesn't lose his bet.