Mr David Cameron started his historic address to the massed ranks of the young, modern, multicultural, occasionally brown, and not in the least smug, Conservative Party conference by saying that he was pleased to be in symphony hall, with everyone playing the same tune. This is what passes for a joke in these serious times, which is almost enough to make one nostalgic for the Tory rallies of yore, where Kenny Everett would agitate for nuclear war.
But Mr Cameron was playing it straight. He wore a dark suit and a grim expression. His skin was moisturised. He was flanked by William Hague’s ears, an unambiguous symbol of wisdom and unity.
He made several promises. He promised: “We will not allow what happened in America to happen here,” without mentioning what it was that happened in America. Was it the Boston Tea Party? The OJ Simpson trial? Or the episode of Dallas where Bobby emerged from the shower and declared that the previous series had all been a dream?
He promised to be sober, responsible, measured, proportionate, and responsible (again), which marked him out from those politicians who stand drunk and irresponsible behind the dispatch box. He talked pessimistically about how he was an optimist, which may be why he felt that society was broken, and rife with senseless barbaric violence, and the angry harsh culture of incivility. (His bicycle was stolen recently but, oddly, he didn’t mention that).
This was not a triumphalist address. Serious times call for quiet talk. (Sadly, Mr Iain Duncan Smith, the original Quiet Man, was nowhere to be seen.) Cameron burbled like the under-manager of an aspiring telecoms company, selling widgets to the world. Let’s call him Dave.
“We are a nation at war,” Dave said, optimistically warning that “if we fail in out mission, the Taleban will come back… more terrorists, more bombs, more slaughter on our streets.” He was in favour of soldiers, heroes and Gurkhas. He liked health visitors, but not the nanny state. He wanted to strengthen the family, and to encourage women to work, so – in common with all who decry the nanny state - he was presumably in favour of nannies.
The optimism continued. “These are times of great anxiety,” he said. “The tap marked ‘borrowing’ was turned on and left running for too long,” he warned. “They thought the asset price bubble didn’t matter.”
Since most bankers don’t understand the rudiments of plumbing, the world economy was in a mess. The bankers were to blame, but this was not the time to blame them. Not while the tap was running. “There will be a day of reckoning,” Dave prophesied, using the same formulation as yesterday, “but today is not that day.”
There was some analysis in all this grim chatter. Gordon Brown had made two big mistakes. His worst decision was contained inside his best decision. “He changed the rules of the game. But he took the referee off the pitch.”
That was Mr Brown’s first mistake. His second was to behave like a spendaholic when the cupboard was bare. Mr Cameron would not be doing that. “You shouldn’t spend in the good times,” he said. He didn’t intend to spend in the bad times either.
Instead, he would destroy useless quangos and initiatives. His lack of experience would be no handicap. “Experience means you’re implicated,” he said, sounding increasingly like Miminus, the poetic pig in Animal Farm: “experience is bad…”
Instead, he offered “simple beliefs with profound implications.” These beliefs were various. He was not libertarian. He was in favour of marriage, and not in favour of the unmarried. They were cowardly weasels who deserved to horse-whipped. (This is a slight paraphrase). Michael Howard, he said, stretching credulity in a manner which would have impressed the most hardened of fantabulists, was a very kind man and a great leader of the party.
Cameron then talked about being a parent. All politicians must be parents these days. Unparents are dangerous loners of the type you might meet on a sink estate or in prison.
Dave is a parent, albeit one who boasts about going to bed with an entrepreneur. He talked movingly about watching children walk across the playground with the schoolbag in one hand and the lunch box in the other. Fortunately, this theme was left undeveloped, lest he start to sound like Kevin Bacon in The Woodsman.
But Dave did have some big ideas on education. He was declaring war on schools which say “’all must have prizes’, and the dreadful practice of dumbing down.”
He was in favour of no one getting prizes, and of dumbing up. He was in favour of spelling. “They let a child get marks or writing f--- off in an exam,” he warned darkly. (No wonder the exam results are always getting better).
He talked about patriotism. He was deeply patriotic. “Do you know what?” he asked optimistically. “I don’t want to be prime minister of England. I want to be prime minister of the United Kingdom.” If he is elected Prime Minister, he may get his wish for a short while, until somebody – most likely Mr Alex Salmond – points out that the Conservative mandate stops just after Carlisle.
He talked on like a motivational scoutmaster. Dab followed dib. “The right thing will always be right.” He was in favour of Margaret Thatcher. He would end the something-for-nothing culture. He was not confident about the benefit of benefits.
Then, a bombshell: “This is a country, not a television channel.” (A moment of clarity, this, from a man whose qualification for political office is his stint as a PR for a television channel). But his lack of experience would not be a disadvantage. Inexperience was the very thing for these strange days! “Experience is the excuse of the incumbent down the ages.”
If David Miliband can tear himself away from his banana aversion therapy, he may be flattered that he was deemed important enough to be caricatured for something he didn’t say. Whatever it was, Dave didn’t believe it. You can’t say, Dave said, that there is no such thing as society. The audience applauded, whilst thinking mistily about the blessed Margaret, and her lieutenant Squealer Joseph, whose idea this really was.
The ideas, by now, were tumbling out, amid a hailstorm of clunky metaphors. These were not high-falutin dreams, they were what used to be known as common sense, before the Common Market abolished it. Dave was not in favour of Health and Safety Human Rights Culture. He was not in favour of parents at schools being checked for criminal records. He was against plasma screen TVs on the taxpayer, and – big applause – would offer a Euro referendum.
He also wanted to let people die in dignity, which was nice. “Come with me to Wandsworth prison,” he declared jauntily, “and meet the inmates… the middle-aged failure… the drug addict…” Mr Hague and Mr George Osborne looked on with as much weary gravitas as they could muster, without ever looking moved or convinced. “I am a man with a plan,” Dave concluded, “not a miracle cure.”
He laid no stress on the second point, which was just as well, all things considered.