I AM your public servant, standing here, wanting to make our country so much better…” an emotional David Cameron told Conservative party conference yesterday. The Prime Minister clearly takes his spot in the Notting Hill set seriously, borrowing as heavily as he did from one of the most famous moments in the iconic 90s rom-com.
It wasn’t just the tear-jerking scenes Cameron pilfered, he did his own version of Hugh Grant’s don’t pick him, pick me routine too. Listing his promises to the nation, and having given his audience some tough-love about the state of the country’s finances, the Prime Minister opened his arms wide and gave the party faithful a cuddle. “I don’t claim to be the perfect leader,” he murmured gently into his audience’s hair, “but I am your public servant … I love this country, and I will do my duty by it.”
Even those Tories considering taking Nigel Farage as a mistress rediscovered their loyalty as the Conservative leader stood on stage, begging to be loved, appealing wide-eyed and teary for the backing of those floating voters who will decide his fate in 2015.
But it’s the votes of the people who reject Notting Hill as Hollywood fakery that Cameron really needs to win. Recognising this conundrum, the PM sought to speak to both in an address which tackled the Ukip heartland issues of immigration and Europe, Labour battle lines on the NHS and low pay, and which gave the strongest nod yet to the blue-collar conservative values of aspiration, hard work and reward that his party would like to see him publicly embrace.
And by all accounts, Cameron managed it. The audience waved the Union flags they were given with gusto and cheered in most of the right places. Labour’s main attack line, that a £7bn commitment to cut taxes remains unfunded, is undermined by Ed Miliband’s omission of the deficit in his own speech. Most notably, the PM’s spinners looked cheerful.
Labour always knew that fighting the general election in 2015 on who will make the more credible Prime Minister would be tough. It’s why they’ve been trying so hard to force the Tories to talk about the NHS. But Cameron took the line his party has been openly begging him to take: defiant refusal to concede the health service to Miliband and a plea to his party to do the same. His speech was an attempt to detoxify the Tory brand and move away from the NHS conversation as defined by Labour, which will always see Cameron on the back foot.
“From Labour last week, we heard the same old rubbish about the Conservatives and the NHS. Spreading complete and utter lies,” Cameron said angrily, as the clapping in the hall grew louder. Getting into his stride, he shouted: “I just think, how dare you … it may be the only thing that gets a cheer at their party conference but it is frankly pathetic”. The audience whipped itself into a seat-thumping frenzy.
It was a speech to please his core voters, to woo the young, aspirational middle-income workers for whom the Conservative brand might not be too toxic to cast a ballot, and to convince those looking to Ukip that, at heart, Cameron is as blue as they come, not a red-tinged shade of purple. The challenge for the Conservatives now, having urged the country to aspire to great things, is to deliver the Hollywood ending.