Why Cameron’s speech didn’t really matter
The banking crisis has played into Brown’s hands. Tories must bide their time, says Donald Malcolm
When London mayor Boris Johnson bumped into David Cameron in Birmingham earlier this week he is reported to have complained that he had been given only a two-day pass for the five-day party conference. Cameron apparently replied: "That's because you have a city to run." What he might have said was that the journalist had won the mayoral election because his campaign manager kept him shackled and free of the gaffes for which he is famous – and that this was no time to have a maverick running loose.
Indeed, Tory fears that Johnson might go off message were justified when he mounted a defence of City types: "I say to Labour, you will not make this country or its capital more competitive by driving out talent. You can't regulate your way out of a recession, but you can regulate your way into one."
Johnson’s line was at odds with that of the Shadow Chancellor who warned City bankers they would have to pay for the mess they have made in the "capitalist casino". In the toughest attack on the City since the banking crisis broke, George Osborne said: "If you took risks, then you must bear the cost. If you pay yourself the sums far beyond what anyone else does in any other walk of life, then be prepared to lose it when you make mistakes."
Osborne's attack - and the care taken over Johnson - emphasise Tory fears that their City links and their faith in deregulated markets could cost them support at a time when the market is perceived to have failed and the public doesn't like 'greedy bankers'. Recent polls suggest Brown and Darling are more trusted than Cameron and Osborne to deal with the crisis; one poll saw the Tory lead over Labour halved.
What this illustrates is just how much of modern politics is to do with image. The Tories turned up in Birmingham wrestling with an image problem - a perception that in Cameron they have a Mr Happy in contrast to Brown's Mr Grumpy. For the past year that contrast has played well for the Tories as Cameron's easy manner has trumped Brown's dour demeanour.
Now, suddenly, Mr Grumpy is the man the public believe can steer the country through the financial chaos. Furthermore, Brown – so the public perception goes - is hardly likely to be a friend of rich bankers. The fact that he is actually - and indeed that his friendship with one of them, the chairman of Lloyds, helped propel the rescue of HBOS last month - is neither here nor there.
As a former marketing man, Cameron used his speech to try to demolish Brown's Unique Selling Proposition (USP) - his experience. "To rebuild our economy, it's not more of the same we need, but change." Cleverly bringing the Iron Lady into play, he argued that if the voters had listened in 1979 to the argument that experience is everything, Britain would never have voted out James Callaghan in favour of Margaret Thatcher.
It was an effective speech but whether he will see a bounce in the polls in coming weeks is debatable. The fact is, as far as Tory hopes of winning the next election are concerned, there was only one important speech made this conference season and it was Brown's not Cameron's.
Brown's best line - "this is no time for a novice" - was aimed at David Cameron and David Miliband. The Foreign Secretary literally had to grin and bear it: producers of the BBC's live conference coverage get an advance copy of leaders' speeches and so were ready to cut to a close-up of the Foreign Secretary when Brown fired the 'novice' missile.
With it, he virtually demolished the hopes of those in the Labour Party who want a new leader. Which is precisely what Cameron and his team were praying for. They know the financial crisis can't last forever and that the questions over Brown will re-emerge. When that happens, they want Brown with all his weaknesses to be the man they take on at the polls. ·
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