Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Cameron does gravitas

The Tory representatives are crowded around the Teletubby green BBC exhibition stand on one of the conference walkways. On-screen, and just a few metres down the hall, Andrew Neil is interviewing Philip Hammond, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury.

"Should people be scared Mr Hammond?" asks Andrew Neil. "I'm frightened, we've never seen anything like this." The audience lean forwards together for the response. Mr Hammond practices his best bedside manner:" I think we should be concerned..."

What politicians says at a time like this is crucially important but how they say it is just as vital. David Cameron had just come off-stage having delivered an object lesson in how to provide assurance with his own carefully weighed version of unfolding events.

Mr Cameron does gravitas even better than Mr Hammond, ladling on seriousness in a sombre speech to conference which sat mostly in silence for what was holding operation disguised as a sermon. Mr Cameron's emergency statement was designed to give the Conservatives breathing space in the news whirlwind that was now settling over the city of London and Wall Street.

With the ground moving rapidly around them the Conservative frontbench team are well aware that they need a new game plan. The image of the Conservatives free marketing, city loving, capitalists could leave Mr Cameron on the wrong side of the tracks as the credit crisis deepens.

In the Birmingham bubble the Conservatives have been saying contradictory things about the financial crisis, trying to blame the government for what voters see as a global problem, straining with their instincts not to condemn the markets while sounding stern on irresponsible profiteering. George Osborne went some of the way to telling people that he was on the side of voters against rich bankers on Monday and now it was Cameron's task to show them that he could be a man to provide assurance in a time of crisis.

Mr Cameron's tone was pitch perfect, his stature prime ministerial enough, his caution and offer of practical support an effort to make the opposition party relevant to what was happening

His key message was bi-partisanship, that the UK was not like the USA, that he would put aside any rivalry in Westminster to push through legislation that will protect savers if more banks go under.

Today Mr Cameron returns to the podium for his keynote speech but such is the uncertainty that his address will be drafted and redrafted. It will mean another late night to match Monday's crisis speech writing session.

News of the collapse of the Congressional bail-out deal swept through the conference hotel as representatives made their way to the evening receptions on Monday. The Dow Jones went down quicker than the drams at the Scotch Whisky Association reception. While Mr Cameron did his duty to the Scottish Conservative fringe circuit appearances later in the evening were curtailed. Being seen quaffing champagne while the world stood on the brink of a financial abyss would not be the done thing.

The party had briefly considered considered cancelling the conference but that would have been rash. Mr Cameron spoke to Mr Brown by telephone and offered support for the Prime Minister.

By yesterday morning orders for a new mood of bi-partisanship, and an end to attacks on the government, even extended to the Milibanana stands, life size portraits of the the Foreign Secretary that were being used to lampoon his efforts to become Prime Minister.

The banana stands were hastily removed from the conference foyer as Mr Cameron addressed the audience inside. It was as good a sign as the empty champagne bottles stacked outside that the pop had gone out of the Conservative party conference.

It was a near empty conference hall that awaited Dominic Grieve, the shadow Home Secretary, who was pushed into a 1pm slot because of the rescheduling caused by the economic crisis. Wherever the party members where they weren't at a free lunch - the bill for that had just arrived on the world's doormat.

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