The party conference season is over. All three leaders can look back on it with some satisfaction. Nick Clegg saw the majority of his party firmly commit itself to remaining in the coalition until 2015, not least to show that the Lib Dems can operate as a party of government. In a deft speech, Ed Miliband tied himself more closely to Labour, strengthened his personal authority and silenced critics of his leadership.
Yesterday, David Cameron reminded the Conservatives that being prime minister is about more than telling jokes. Borismania has been a distraction; it is more a symptom of the Tories’ malaise and restlessness than a solution. The very seriousness of the prime minister’s speech was an effective response.
The Cameron argument has echoes of John Major in 1992 when, against expectations, the Tories won an overall majority and more votes than any party before or since. His line was that the global economic situation is tough. Difficult choices remain to be made on reducing the deficit and ensuring that Britain stays competitive. In such times, he insisted, only the Tories have risen to the challenges; Labour does not appreciate how serious the situation is. Cameron’s speech allied this with an aspirational appeal to the “strivers” who want to be better off—again, a parallel to the Tories’ “tax bombshell” attack on Labour in 1992.
Of course, there are plenty of factors working in the opposite direction: the sluggish economy and delayed recovery, the prospect of more spending cuts to come, the perception and in part reality of government mistakes, summed up by the “omnishambles” tag.
The coalition faces a very tough year, both economically and politically. None of that has been altered at all by the conference season. No party attempted much in the way of specific answers to pressing problems such as deficit reduction, Europe or social disaffection. But some of the earlier froth has been blown away. The current leaders, like it or not, are the ones who will be around until 2015.
Peter Riddell is Director of the Institute for Government and writing in a personal capacity