Alex Massie

David Cameron Prepares for Government

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At first I thought it a little unfortunate that David Cameron's peroration today unconsciously - I assume - echoed the Royal Bank of Scotland's slogan "Make it happen". But actually, the rise and fall of RBS is something of a template for the rise and fall of governments. Years of promise and fat and profit encourage excessive self-confidence and over-expansion that ends with a devastating, humiliating crash. That has been Labour's experience and it will eventually be the Tories' story too, assuming that Cameron and his pals form the next government.

This was a bleak, sombre speech. Perhaps even excessively so. Listening to it you could have been forgiven for thinking that Cameron was an agent of the Australian or Canadian governments, drumming up business and persuading Britons to chuck it all in and start a new life of opportunity on the far side of the world. Everything in Britain is broken - society, economy, politics - so the rational response might well be to cut your losses and leave. Who could blame you if you did?

Everyone appreciates the fiscal difficulties that lie ahead. But, serious and sober though it was, I wonder if Cameron didn't come perilously close to protesting too much. It was as though he was saying I know some of you think I'm a lightweight, but look how serious and glum I can be too. You've never had it so miserable, have you? And you know it takes guts to say that.

A little more lightness, a touch more optimism would not have been out of place. Even, shock, a little rhetoric might have helped. Despite that, hoever, this was a considerably more coherent speech than that delivered by the Prime Minister in Brighton last week. The criticisms of Big Government were, while a touch simplistic, on point and helped provide a coherent philosophical framework for the speech. Even here, mind you, this was delivered as Reaganism without the sunshine.

The theme of the Tory Conference has been that "We're all in this together" but many people, of course, are not. Plenty of families are actually better off than they were a couple of years ago. That is, if your job is secure and you have a mortgage you may well be finding the recession, if not a breeze, then comparatively comfortable.

Still, the stand-out highlight in a speech that could have done with a little more zip, was Cameron's attack on the poverty trap:

Just think of the signals we send out. To the family struggling to raise children, pay a mortgage, hold down a job.

“Stay together and we’ll give you less; split up and we give you more.”

To the young mum working part time, trying to earn something extra for her family “from every extra pound you earn we’ll take back 96 pence.”

Yes, 96 pence.

Let me say that again, slowly.

In Gordon Brown’s Britain if you’re a single mother with two kids earning £150 a week the withdrawal of benefits and the additional taxes mean that for every extra pound you earn, you keep just 4 pence.

What kind of incentive is that? Thirty years ago this party won an election fighting against 98 per cent tax rates on the richest. Today I want us to show even more anger about 96 per cent tax rates on the poorest.

Good stuff and honourable stuff too. How the Tories will change this - and pay for it - remains to be seen but this speech, decent though it was, could have done with more of this kind of talk.

So this wasn't a policy speech - that's for the lower ranking officers to produce - but a thematic one designed to show that Cameron has the seriousness, the bottom if you like, to be Prime Minister. As such it was, I think, gloomy but effective.

This week you’ve heard about our plans, our policies, the changes we want to make and the team to put them in place.

But I know that whatever plans you make in Opposition, it’s the unpredictable events that come to dominate a government.

And it’s your character, your temperament and your judgment, not your policies and your manifesto – that really make the difference.

You can never prove you’re ready for everything that will come your way as Prime Minister. But you can point to the judgments you’ve made. And you can learn from the mistakes that others have made.

I’ve seen what happens when you win and you waste your mandate obsessing about the 24 hour news cycle and fighting each day as if it’s a new general election, ducking the difficult things that would have really made a difference.

That was Blair. And I’ve seen what happens when you turn every decision into a political calculation. That was – that is – Brown.

So I won’t promise things I cannot deliver.

A Prime Minister in waiting? Quite possibly. But what kind of Prime Minister is something only events, old boy, will decide.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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