THE Tories under David Cameron have become the masters of the conference Mutt and Jeff routine.
All week ministerial Muttleys put the boot into big families on welfare, vowed to batter burglars, threatened referendums on Europe, kicked the Liberal Democrats by rejecting their wealth tax. This all goes down well; red meat for the conference carnivores.
Then on the last day, along comes Jeff, in the form of compassionate Dave, who is kind to animals and gays, and talks movingly about his late disabled Dad and by implication all disadvantaged souls. Oozing empathy. Patron of the Paralympic games. And it has to be said that David Cameron does it very well. This was a hard-headed Thatcherite speech straight from the 1980s but delivered in a "caring" way. He really does sound like he believes in the NHS. He teared up when talking about his late son Ivan. Not many politicians can introduce real emotion into such a stage-managed event as a leader's address without it sounding cynical.
And technically this was a much better speech than last week's modern studies lecture from Ed Miliband. Mr Cameron can hit all the notes – poking fun at Ed's attempt to don the mantle of "one nation" Conservatism. "Labour: the party of one notion: more borrowing". He got his lists right: "We remember who spent our golden legacy, who sold our gold, who busted our banks, who smothered our businesses, who wracked up our debts, wrecked our economy, ruined our reputation and risked our future" (it was Labour in case you were wondering).
Mostly, the speech – like that passage -–said nothing at all, but Mr Cameron said it with real passion. He even managed to get the Tory gathering to applaud foreign aid which he said had paid for the vaccination of 130,000 children since Sunday alone. "You, the Conservative Party helped do that," he said, daring them not to clap, "and you should be proud of what you've done." He avoided all the difficult issues – gay marriage, the referendum on Europe, the challenge from Boris, "the zinger on the zipwire". And he didn't mention his Coalition partners once. But he did mention Alex Salmond and Abu Hamza, who were name-checked as if they were public enemies one and two. He promised to win the Scottish independence referendum and expel radical Muslim clerics.
This was billed as a blood, sweat and tears speech, and he didn't try do disguise the gravity of the situation five years into the Great Recession. He told us that Britain was living on borrowed time as a great commercial nation. That all those enterprising upstart countries, which were recipients of aid money only the day before yesterday, are now battering at the gates. He condemned the old world countries as "fat, sclerotic, over-regulated, spending money on unaffordable welfare systems, huge pension bills, unreformed public services". Did he mean us?
Well this is the problem, because in the same breath as condemning sclerotic, "old world" countries like ours, he couldn't resist suggesting that Britain was also booming under the Conservatives. A million new private sector jobs have been created in the last two years, he said. Though he didn't say how many of these were full-time. The PM said that the rate of new business start-ups in Britain was faster than ever before in history, though he didn't say how many of these small businesses are part-timers opting to become self-employed for tax reasons. We make more cars than in the 1970s, he said, though the firms are foreign-owned. And we are "number one in the world for offshore wind". Somehow these sunny uplands didn't quite hang together.
Of course, all politicians try to have it both ways – it's what they do. But there is more than a danger that this will backfire on Mr Cameron. He knows that the economic policy isn't working; and we know that the economic policy isn't working. And he knows that we know. Take borrowing. It's going up under the Tories as fast as under Labour, in large part because of the failure of growth policies. Those millions of new business start-ups aren't delivering real jobs. They are delivering frothy, here-today-gone-tomorrow jobs at the disposable end of the labour market. These aren't the kind of businesses that are going to take on the Chinese or the South Koreans. And they aren't the kind of jobs that are going to restore Britain as a great manufacturing nation.
Austerity isn't enough. This isn't the 1980s. Governments can't just curb employment rights, cut taxes and public spending and expect business to do the rest – unless you want a Poundland Britain sinking into post-industrial mediocrity. Twenty-first-century governments are condemned to be interventionist – just as they have been in those upstart nations. Does anyone seriously believe that the Chinese state banks sit back and leave it all to the market? Is that how they built 25,000 kms of motorway, an entire high-speed rail network and the five longest bridges in the world all in the last four years?
I'm not suggesting we concrete over Britain, but growth doesn't happen by itself any more. If we are to exploit Britain's – Scotland's – renewable energy potential, government needs to get behind green energy. And someone needs to tell the Chancellor, George Osborne, who seems more interested in backing shale gas and nuclear power stations that are too expensive to build. The Conservatives need to realise that Europe isn't going to go away, and that the EU remains the destination for half of Britain's exports. The abortive EADS/BAE Systems defence deal shows that you can't do business at this level without government being heavily involved.
Margaret Thatcher's vision of a Britain of self-employed Essex tradesmen, owning their homes and getting ahead, is as much a part of folk history as the Winter of Discontent and union barons. Truth is, most of them are in negative equity and struggling to afford their next white van. Mr Cameron commiserated with 33 year old "strivers" who can't afford their first house, but he insisted that the Tories were still the party of the aspirant middle class – the "Aspiration nation" as he put it, in a sound-bite that sounded like it came from The Thick Of It. Mr Cameron risks being a prisoner of the past, a Little Britain Thatcherite who is a clever speaker, but without a lot to say.