Don't write David Cameron off – but he needs to pull his finger out
The Prime Minister advocates hard work – it's advice 'Chillaxed of Chequers' should pay heed to himself
ONE WORD was conspicuous by its absence form David Cameron's speech yesterday to the Conservative Party Conference: coalition.
Perhaps it was simple prudence on the Prime Minister's part. After a calamitous six months that have seen its poll ratings plummet, this was the week that he needed to woo his party. With most Tories barely able to contain their irritation with the Lib Dems, even referring to his coalition partners would have risked a slow handclap.
Ed Miliband, by contrast, was accorded a great deal of attention. Knocking Labour, of course, is always an easy way to get a few cheers from any Conservative gathering. In his own conference speech last week, Miliband made an audacious attempt to paint himself as the "one nation" leader, a concept the Conservatives have always regarded as their own, but didn't even mention the deficit.
Yesterday Cameron hit back with gusto, labelling Labour "the one notion party" for whom borrowing was always the answer "whatever the day, whatever the question, whatever the weather."
It wasn't a bad joke and it made a good point. So long as Labour refuses to address the financial excesses of the Gordon Brown era, the party's past profligacy will remain a huge political weakness.
Attacking Miliband, though, was easy compared to trying to see off Boris Johnson. From the moment he arrived in Birmingham, mobbed at the railway station, through to his departure, Boris was the talking point of the conference.
Those around the Prime Minister make little effort to conceal their frustration, bordering at times on fury, at the way their man finds himself constantly teased and overshadowed by the ebullient London Mayor.
Cameron's answer was to cast himself as a serious man for serious times, in contrast to both his lightweight rivals. The going, he acknowledged, had been harder than expected; the only option was for the country to put its head down, work harder and battle through. Britain, he told us, in quasi-Churchillian mode, was facing a fight for survival.
It struck a chord with his audience, even if it didn't enthuse them, and the PM will be hoping it does so with the wider electorate as well. But, however hard the times, the reason that Labour is up to 15 points ahead in the polls and Boris is dancing rings around him, is not just that things have turned out to be tougher than expected. At the turn of the year the outlook was hardly rosy, but the Tories' ratings were still surprisingly robust.
It was George Osborne's "omnishambles" budget in March that sent them into freefall. Since then, an apparently endless series of U-turns, blunders, parliamentary revolts and other mishaps has only increased the impression of a beleaguered leadership that has lost its sense of direction and its ability to control events.
The image of Cameron as 'Chillaxed of Chequers', as one media wag dubbed him, has not helped either. It seems ironic now that in opposition he once said that he wanted to be Prime Minister because he thought he would "be rather good at it", and, on another occasion, that he hoped the hallmark of his administration would be quiet competence.
Even so, it would be a mistake to write Cameron off. Boris, it is true, outpolls him comprehensively, but the Mayor is not yet back in Parliament, let alone leading his party. In the meantime the PM commands better personal ratings than his Labour opposite number, and much better than Nick Clegg. If the economy picks up over the next two and a half years, his position could still recover surprisingly quickly.
For that to happen, however, he needs to raise his game, and George Osborne even more so. There is a touch of the Micawber about the Camerons, a belief that something will turn up without them having to do much about it.
The lesson of the last two years is that such faith is all too likely to be misplaced. The economy has not bounced back as they thought it would. Ed Miliband, while he may not be an obvious electoral bet, has turned out to be much more effective than they expected.
It is all very well for Cameron to tell us that we all need to work harder and do better in that head boy way which seems to come so naturally to him. He is right, of course, but his advice applies to himself as well – in spadefuls.