Still polished, still smooth, still a bit of a darling to the middle classes, especially the posh ones. Some people will always have a soft spot for David Cameron. He seems very nice, and he has been very good up to now in this coalition government, hardly putting a foot wrong with Nick as his sidekick: how much more he has in common with Nick’s colleagues than the right wing of his own party. But, he has not delivered a decent conference speech since the extemporaneous one that got him the leader’s role.
This was Cameron’s first big gig as The Man, as near as we get to an Inaugural Address. It contained neither steel nor substance, by which I mean it was inexpertly delivered and poorly written. Check out Obama’s Inauguration Address by comparison: in that we got some real gravitas in delivery; there was a palpable shifting of gear, from aspiring candidate to Commander In Chief. Obama was no longer being interviewed for the post: he was in charge. His tone alone told us that. And the content chimed with the times (he was also unencumbered with the task of hammering the Republicans; it’s not that kind of occasion). How many times are we to hear about all the mistakes of the past? Except, of course, those made by the banks…
Cameron here was not fully in charge of either his material, or himself. In terms of delivery it remains to be seen when, or whether, he can get enough gravitas; there are some disadvantages to those boyish good looks. His jokes are often good, but so what? It is unlikely he writes them himself and they are not going to be long remembered (have a look at Obama’s Press Association routine for a comparison on that score). There is a certain enthusiasm and it was obvious he thought he would have the troops swinging from the chandeliers with his lists of Labour’s failures and the new lot’s successes; but the lists were too long and the delivery too laboured. He should give the scribe a belt in the lug-hole as it asked far too much of him. He maybe is trying too hard, attempting to be a motivational speaker rather than motivational; seemingly the warm up act before the main event. He needs to remember who he is.
You might think this is unfair - you certainly will if you are a supporter of his party - but this was a huge test and he never nailed it. And if you are a fan you will like this next comparison even less: in the big tests at conferences, when he has needed to pull out a performance that would be passionate, charismatic and unforgettable, and that would articulate the what and the why to a sceptical audience, Tony Blair always delivered. There are certainly some comparisons to be made between this Prime Minister and Blair, but when it comes to platform speaking Cameron is not in the same league.
In the Leaders’ debates Cameron can claim credit for getting it all together at the third attempt and getting pass marks in the second, but he was all over the place - and now has Nick Clegg as his deputy - because of the debacle of debate number one. This is not going to be good enough in the coming years.
Delivery was underwhelming and, frankly, he is not as good on his feet as his people like to think he is. Cameron definitely left something in the locker room here, because he can be better. That is at least partly down to what he chose to say; and the notes he looked down at a little too often (get with the autocue, Mr Cameron, it’s not difficult). It is reasonably simple to articulate what you need to do when tasked with delivering a keynote: know your audience; believe in what you are saying to them; and articulate it so they “get it”. You want them nodding and clapping, not sitting on their hands and looking at one another (and this was not a difficult audience).
We can leave the evisceration of Labour out. It probably had to be done and is “shooty in” for some applause, like telling a workforce they made target and there will be big bonuses, so no points for that.
The hard times ahead, “we are all in this together” and “your country needs you” piece was hardly Churchillian; there is a strange dispassionate, detached sense to it, despite the competent delivery. It may be partly that we know Cameron himself is hardly in “it” with us financially. But largely, for me, the narrative is just not good enough; he needs to find a story, a style, a way of being that suits him and gets us going. One that has us believing in him as a leader, because on the big issues he did not even get the people in the room doing that.
And it all gets more challenging when we get to THE BIG SOCIETY! This is a good idea when you think about it: taking more responsibility for making your environment a better place to be, and understanding that as a group we do it all better than on our own. But he has to be able to deliver it in an elevator pitch, and one that has us nodding, arms folded, sagely thinking that a dose of that would do just fine and is precisely what we need.
What would work in the hall for The Big Society, of course, is the narrative of, “remember when the local Bobby could administer a clip round the ear; old Betty left her door open so we could all check in on her; it was an honour to be on the School Board for those six years; Jim got an OBE for leading the Scout Troop for quarter of a century; there was a time when what you said actually mattered and we actually got things done” (as long as you had a well-waxed moustache, brown brogues and carried a shooting stick)...The Vicar of Dibley without the laughs.
But of course he can’t say that, because it would be prosaic, nostalgic and ridiculous. So he is stuck with an idea, a big idea and maybe a good one, but one he is utterly unable to articulate. Or he is terrified of opening Pandora’s box and finding a populace in the 21st century sticking two fingers up at him, and the Scout Master. Probably all those who don’t buy the Daily Mail.
Listen out for David Cameron when he speaks to us, because what he says, and how he says it, is important. It is his articulation of what he has done, is doing, and is going to do. He really needs many of us to get on the bus with him (or bike, with limo behind… doubt he takes the bus). But it’s down to him to convince us; if we are convinced we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Apparently Churchill, at his first cabinet meeting, said that they should all be prepared to die for the cause, and in fact that was probably just what was going to happen (I paraphrase). We are not in the same place as we were when Churchill used the power of words to save our way of life, but ‘Call Me Dave’ needs some rhetorical devices of his own, some conviction and gravitas, to get us to believe. He could do worse than look at some video of Blair delivering his conference keynotes: now there was someone in a room full of people who needed persuading…
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