David Cameron told his Conservative Party to stick with him through tough economic times and unpopularity in a speech aides said they expected the wider electorate to ignore.
Halfway through his five-year term, the prime minister addressed his party’s annual conference in Birmingham, central England, today, with the Tories lagging the opposition Labour Party in opinion polls and after the International Monetary Fund again downgraded its forecasts for the U.K. economy.
Cameron offered no changes of course and no new policies. He gave a speech light on jokes, in contrast to those in recent days of the two most prominent challengers for his job, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and a fellow Tory, London Mayor Boris Johnson. The premier’s message was that Britain’s economic situation in 2010 had been worse than he’d realized and would take longer to fix.
“Electorally it is not the kind of speech that is going to turn anything around,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, who was in the hall. “No one is going to remember it next year or even next week. If you say you’ve made the tough decisions and if the essence of your strategy is staying the course, that precludes drawing any rabbits out of hats.”
With the next election not due until 2015, the Conservatives’ goal for their annual conference was simply for it to pass off without incident, according to two people responsible for the party’s strategy.
The party’s chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, who’s responsible for discipline in the House of Commons, stayed away from Birmingham, amid continuing calls for his resignation over an altercation with police outside Cameron’s Downing Street office.
Johnson protested his loyalty to Cameron in two speeches to activists and told the BBC he’d welcome an end to talk of a leadership challenge.
Cameron’s party had 33 percent support, 12 points behind Labour, according to the latest regular YouGov Plc poll published today. YouGov, which gave no margin of error, questioned 1,899 adults Oct. 8 and yesterday.
At times today, as when Cameron’s voice cracked when he talked about his severely disabled first son, Ivan, who died in 2009, or his father Ian, who died in 2010, the tone was somber.
The prime minister skipped his usual off-script introductory jokes, going straight into a list of the economic challenges his government had faced since taking office. “I know you are asking whether the plan is working,” he said. “And here’s the truth: the damage was worse than we thought, and it’s taking longer than we hoped. The world economy -- especially in the euro zone -- has been much weaker than expected in the past two years.”
He argued that his mission wasn’t to change what the Tories stood for, rather to change how they were perceived, “to show the Conservative party is for everyone: north or south, black or white, straight or gay.”
He was applauded as he reminded his audience of how he’d rejected joining the European Union’s fiscal compact last year, before going on to attack some of the EU’s members as “fat, sclerotic, over-regulated, spending money on unaffordable welfare systems, huge pension bills, unreformed public services.” He questioned his fellow leaders’ priorities, adding, “I am not going to stand here as prime minister and allow this country to join the slide.”
Education Secretary Michael Gove said afterward that the party will respond well to the speech. “Conservatives will say ‘yes,’ but they will realize that within the family of Conservativism he is a centrist,” he said in an interview. “He is not someone who is driven by a sense of rage. It would have been premature to say tomorrow is going to be a golden day.”
Johnson and Miliband both got brief mentions. The London mayor, treated like a rock star on his arrival at the conference, was “the man who put a smile on our faces, the zinger on the zip wire.”
Miliband, in his speech to the Labour Party conference in Manchester last week, argued that he stood for “one nation” politics and emphasized that unlike Cameron, he came from immigrant roots and attended a state school.
“I don’t have a hard-luck story,” Cameron said to laughter. “My dad was a stockbroker. We don’t preach about one nation but practise class war. We just get behind people who want to get on in life.”