David Cameron has just given a remarkable speech to the Tory party conference in Blackpool. A week ago it looked as though the Tories were done and Project Cameron an embarrassing fiasco. Now, after a successful conference, Cameron may have wrong-footed Labour himself. In other words, these remain febrile times.
Cameron's task was to demonstrate that he had the ability to rise above party, persuading his television audience (and the doubters in his own party) that he has it in him to be Prime Minister. My sense was that he succeeded and that he did so in part because of the bold, even fresh, approach he took. This was not your ordinary pre-election stem-winder. In fact it wasn't much of a stem-winder at all (which in turn makes it harder to gauge its effectiveness).
The first bold step was to speak for 68 minutes without recourse to a prepared text or autocue. Cameron did away with a podium and strolled the stage as though he were some motivational guru headlining a conference on how to get your mojo back (and of course, this was what he was charged with doing). It was a risky move but one that paid dividends. The speech may have been short of soaring rhetoric, but that's no bad thing these days. Cameron's task was not to show off with jokes or applause lines of lofty rhetoric but to show that he had bottom. By and large, I think he succeeded.
He even declined to throw too much red meat to the party faithful. Immigration and europe were raised, but not major themes. He didn't even launch a passionate, indignant assault upon the Labour Party and Gordon Brown. What he did do, however, was come across as a thoughtful young man who had thought long and hard about the problems facing British society. It wasn't enough, he said, for the Tories to point out why Labour has failed to meet its own targets. The Tories had to understand - and persuade the country - why Labour had under-achieved and under-whelmed.
His indictment was conceptual, even philosophical: Labour failed because they thought they knew best. Centralisation and a top down approach in education, health, welfare, law and order etc etc demonstrated Labour's belief that it knows how to run your life better than you do yourself. Cameron preached localism and a bottom-up approach, freeing service providers and citizens alike. In its way his speech was a demonstration of the limits of government but it was delivered with modesty and even some charm. Cameron was able to make his pitch that he understands the anxieties and pressures of modern life and that the Tories are on your side, sympathetic to the plight of coppers staining under the burden of idiotic red tape, but also determined to fix a rotten welfare system that penalises families who want to be together. He didn't say it, but this was compassionate conservatism in action.
The contrast with Gordon Brown's speech at the Labour conference was total. Cameron seemed new and looked to the future; Brown, by contrast, was reheated porridge of the sort we've had before. Brown's was a standard political speech (packed, you'll recall with Shrumisms - something which didn't help it at all) while Cameron challenged Brown to call an early election. Enough with your petty machinations Gordon, let's take our jackets off and have at it...
Suddenly Brown has something to think about, while Cameron came across as the young challenger, impatient to knock the champion off his perch. After a terrible summer, it's now Brown who must worry: if he doesn't go to the country he'll look weak and as though he's ducking a fight. If he does, he's meeting an opponent vastly fitter and "up for it" than seemed possible just a week ago. Perhaps you used to chuckle at the words "Prime Minister Cameron" - well I wouldn't anymore if I were you.
Of course, everything may change by next week...
Lots of good reaction from the smart lads at The Spectator too. I think Cameron can be relieved that Stuart Reid, the most paleocon of all the Speccie boys, was not impressed. Appealling to Mr Reid is not the way to win an election. In this instance, Matt d'Ancona and Fraser Nelson are better guides.