Peter Hoskin

Cameron’s peculiar speech

Cameron's peculiar speech
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Ok, so that was a peculiar kind of speech from David Cameron – neither wholly successful, nor wholly unsuccessful. In terms of its general tone, it was much as we expected: a dose of bitter realism about the public finances, lacquered over with heavy optimism about what the country can be. But its content was more surprising, brave even. For this was the moment when the Big Society returned with a vengeance.

In truth, we haven't heard much in recent months about the idea that framed the Tories' election campaign. Coalition seemed to have displaced it from the Cameroonian lexicon, if not their thinking. But it made an early appearance in one of the most unconventional sections of Cameron's speech. Labour "don't deserve all the blame," he averred, before going onto say that we, the nation, "swallowed" their big statism, their handouts and their irresponsibility. You could almost hear the confusion in the conference hall, but you could see where Cameron was going with this: his grand theme of "responsibility". And sure enough, a few beats later, he praised the country's "spirit of activism" that can drag us through the worst. We mustn't rely on government, he said, but more on our own honest toil and pluck.

Many will question the wisdom of disinterring the theme that, some say, was to blame for the Tories' failure to win a majority. But, to my mind, there is some potency in it: an attractive cross-pollination of the conservative and liberal traditions. And, besides, there were even moments here when Cameron made the Big Society soar as it hasn't before. "I know the British people – they are not passengers, they are drivers," he said in a closing section that dwelt firmly on people power. And he finished with an urgent appeal: "So come on, let's pull together. Let's come together. Let's work together, in the national interest." He certainly doesn't lack enthusiasm for this idea, even if others do.

Elsewhere, Cameron was less convincing. The passage on welfare, for instance, made all the right noises – but they came out strangely muffled and muted. There was nothing to match the fiery brilliance of his stand on poverty and welfare dependency in last year's conference speech. Instead, we got a reference to that speech, and a recognition that Iain Duncan Smith had worked out how to solve the problems that were mentioned then. I do not think that Cameron lacks conviction on these matters – but, at times, that's how it sounded. Ditto on public service reform and even Afghanistan. All of the emotion and dazzle seemed to be reserved for passages on the Big Society.

In the end, it's hard to judge this one – and maybe that doesn't matter. This was an erratic, bold and idiosyncratic number from the Prime Minister. But the words barely matter beside the task of the Spending Review on 20 October.