Cameron bets on substance not style
By Tim Collins
David Cameron's speech today was, unusually for a recent speech by a leading British politician, designed to explain an argument not reshape an image.
It was a full-throated, detailed, point by point explanation for the decisions taken by his Government - on the deficit, on the public services, on foreign policy - and took no prisoners. He managed to link the usual shopping list of policy areas name-checked in every such speech into a strong narrative - that only by having an unpopular government today can Britain have any credible future tomorrow.
Mr Cameron was unafraid to take on some of the critics in his own ranks - facing down those Conservatives who are uneasy about protecting the overseas aid budget, or who resist changes to the planning system. Both were described, in effect, as simply selfish.
He mentioned Boris Johnson only once, in passing, and masterfully - praising him, encouraging the audience to applaud him, but using a phrase - "the zinger on the zipwire" which sums up simultaneously why the London Mayor is enormously popular but not remotely regarded in Downing Street as a serious contender for the Premiership.
But it was the external audience at whom the Prime Minister was aiming the bulk of his remarks. His aim was very simple - to portray those, either to his right or to his left, who ask for alternatives as fundamentally unserious.
He managed to be passionate about subjects which could otherwise be dry - borrowing requirements, interest rates, international market credibility - and linked them to a very striking phrase: that Britain must choose whether to ?sink or swim?.
The choice he offered the country was between being a country on the rise - like China or Indonesia - or a country on the slide - like Greece (and, he strongly implied, all the rest of the EU too).
He was in effect telling his country something fairly stark - it's not just that we cannot afford to borrow any more, it is essentially frivolous even to contemplate an alternative economic strategy. For a man who was once again at pains to stress that his party was not the "same old Tories", it was a refreshingly Thatcherite theme.
The world does not owe the UK a living, he made clear, and if we fail to rise to the challenge we will simply drown - and that, he clearly thinks, would be our own fault.
Renewed opportunities for business
The speech was the culmination of a Conservative conference where the party, quite consciously, decided to change its attitude towards business.
The biggest cheer from the floor for any speaker other than Messrs Cameron, Johnson or Osborne came in response from a direct warning from Mark Price, the Managing Director of Waitrose, that it was time for politicians of all parties to "stop knocking business".
The new Environment Secretary Owen Patterson, and the new Energy Minister John Hayes, went out of their way to stress their utter determination to clear away any unreasonable objections towards speedy exploration of, and in due course exploitation of, the UK's shale gas reserves. The Chancellor even offered a tax break to that end.
Ministers at all levels were happy and eager to engage with business leaders - the days when Tories felt they should be "aloof" from business concerns as part of a modernisation strategy are long gone.
The centre-piece of George Osborne's speech was a series of measures (albeit as yet very imperfectly designed) aimed at removing regulatory hurdles stopping SMEs from hiring.
Mr Cameron captured that change of mood today. He spoke warmly of his determination to "salute" those "who want to get on in life".
Privately, senior Conservatives admitted at the Conference that this realisation of the supreme importance of successful businesses to national survival had taken too long to seep through. But now it has.
There is a long way to go before Britain under Prime Minister Cameron can regain its status as the unrivalled enterprise centre of Europe which it enjoyed under Mrs Thatcher and, for a time, under Mr Blair.
But businesses with a clear and practical wishlist to put before Ministers, urging measures which would demonstrably increase growth and job creation, have now their best chance in some years to get a fair hearing. And if that message above all lasts after this Conference season fades away, Mr Cameron and his colleagues will be well pleased - and might even begin to start regaining some public respect.