The Prime Minister’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference on Wednesday had one simple message. Leaving aside the PM’s warnings about the lights going out under Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze, or the oft-repeated mantra which urged a cynical electorate to let him ‘finish the job’, Mr Cameron’s message was actually a lot simpler: look at me.
And for the few thousand people in the conference hall in Manchester, along with the millions watching on the news programmes on Wednesday evening, that is exactly what they did. In the absence of any new policy announcements, the message of the Prime Minister’s speech morphed into a personal pitch for a second Cameron term. It was an approach which was no doubt designed to convey an impression of statesmanlike authority; a speech to consolidate the image which a sizeable part of the electorate has of Mr Cameron as Prime Ministerial and in control of the good ship Great Britain.
But the ease and the assumed authority with which the Prime Minister delivered his speech to the Conservative Party faithful on Wednesday cast merely a thin veneer over the electoral mountain which the Prime Minister has to climb if he is to walk back up Downing Street in May 2015. For this was the speech which included a robust defence of the profit motive, yet also included a round of applause for the work of social workers; which proudly highlighted the Government’s success at reducing immigration, yet also stressed the importance of British business making strides towards greater global influence.
The disjointed nature of the speech reflected the underlying political and electoral reality of the Prime Minister’s position. In the past, a Conservative-led Government presiding over a modest economic recovery and facing a Labour opposition shifting to the left, would have been strongly backed to secure a second term in office. Not so today.
Not only must Mr Cameron stop the people who supported him last time around switching to support Ed Miliband in 19 months’ time, he also needs to win back a sizeable number of the approximately 15 to 20% of Conservative voters who have switched to UKIP since 2010. And that is just to get back to where the Conservatives were a few years ago. Beyond that, the road to a majority Conservative government (the first since 1992) entails winning back significant numbers of Liberal Democrat and Labour voters who shied away from backing Mr Cameron in 2010.
Such is the PM’s dilemma. Shift to the right and attempt to win back defectors from UKIP, yet risk alienating potential switchers from the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Tack to the centre, as he did in his first two years as Conservative leader, and risk another civil war within the Conservative Party which would resurrect the twin spectres of disunity and incompetence which haunted the party relentlessly during the 1990s.
Faced with this seemingly impossible dilemma, the Prime Minister attempted one of the simplest of all pitches to the electorate: to put their trust in him personally to ‘finish the job’ which he started in 2010, rather than risk any progress which has been made over the last three years by taking a punt on an unreformed and unrepentant Labour Party. Whether the electorate will take a second look at Mr Cameron in 2015 remains to be seen, but, in many ways, one thing is now for certain: the next election just got personal.