Peter Hoskin

Cameron stumbles onto the stage

Cameron stumbles onto the stage
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Who'd have guessed that David Cameron would go into his conference speech on the backfoot? This was supposed to be a moment tinged, if anything, with jubilation: the first Tory PM for thirteen years addressing a party that seems to have fallen in love with him. But instead we've got the child benefit row, and with it apologies, rebuttals and hasty repositioning. It is to Cameron's credit that he can breath the two words that evade other, more culpable politicians: "I'm sorry". But on the eve of his big speech? Far from ideal.

This exercise in damage limitation may have slightly eased Cameron's situation today – but it has put him in a more difficult long-term position. If the Tories had stuck completely by their original line – that this is "tough but fair" – then they would have attracted a similar amount of ire, yes. But by diluting it with apologies and talk of compensation, they have nurtured a far more dangerous beast: an overall policy that does little to combat the deficit, and a lot to fuel the idea (which I don't hold, incidentally) that the withdrawal of universal benefits is a Bad Thing, worth challenging. And it doesn't help the Tories' cause, either, that all this seems to have been conducted without due forethought or planning.

And so to the speech itself. From what we're hearing this morning, it sounds as though its main message will echo George Osborne's from Monday: the deficit needs to be tackled, and we must all play our part in that. Yet I expect Cameron will dwell more on the happier side of that prospectus – the growth, jobs and eventual fiscal goodies that are coming our way – than did his Chancellor. With the rain pouring down around our PM, and the storm only set to worsen, there is still time for one final blast of sunshine.