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At least Britney knows what she is singing about

Posted on 1 March 2010 | 10:03am

Sketchwriter Matthew Engel gets all the big gigs. He was the one who outed me as a Britney fan when I felt a tap on my shoulder as she shimmied on stage at Wembley, and Mr Engel was there, to say he was ‘doing a piece on Britney crowds’ and would I like to say what I was doing at one of her concerts? I did wonder myself sometimes, especially once the miming got into full swing.

Yesterday Mr Engel, then of The Guardian, now of the FT, had another performance to cover, and this time the performer was allowing real noise to come from his mouth.

But whilst Britney left thousands of (mainly) young fans screaming in delight, the headline on Mr Engel’s account of David Cameron’s performance at his spring conference suggests it was not A List stuff: ‘Party trick falls flat amid subdued faithful.’

I wasn’t there, having spent the morning travelling back from Burnley, Saturday’s sad defeat followed by a happy testimonial dinner for Jimmy McIlroy, and the afternoon at the Carling Cup Final watching Fergie win again, having earlier heard Mr Cameron say he was supporting Aston Villa.

But the key point in Mr Engel’s piece seems to this. ‘”I’ve got to do a speech without any notes,” he [Cameron] said. Got to? This was not a novelty act. If he had spent less intellectual energy on memorising the speech, he might have remembered to say something fresh and inspiring. Oh, it was well crafted, and well delivered too. He just didn’t have anything to say. And the whole occasion was strangely subdued.’

Subdued, I imagine, because of the shrinking poll lead. Having read a transcript of the speech this morning, I think Mr Cameron was trying to answer the doubts about him that are being raised in focus groups. The main one, raised again and again, is whether he has substance, whether he is more than the super-salesman he sees himself as.

His weakness in the speech seemed to be that he was merely raising the questions people had, rather than giving clear answers to them.

He says he is not complacent and told his Party that he always expected this to be a close fight. I’m not so sure about that. I remember seeing George Osborne shortly after GB took over from TB and my strong sense was of a man who thought with Gordon at the helm, it was game over for the Tories. But they have banked too much on media hostility to Labour, and not enough on the public’s ability to care less about what is occupying the Westminster village, and more about decisions that affect their lives.

They are also prepared to recognise GB’s workrate and resilience, qualities required of modern leaders. Nobody can say Gordon has not been tested. They want to see Cameron tested too, which is why there is considerable irritation out there at the generally one-sided anti-Labour tone of the media debate. There is also a big opening for Labour in Cameron saying he wants a greater focus on the Labour record, which he intends to ‘take apart piece by piece.’

I have been saying for a long time that the three planks of any campaign are record, forward agenda and attacks on opponents. Labour have struggled to get over the scope and scale of the record, and Cameron’s intervention provides an opportunity to do so which should be seized.

Cameron does have energy, and the high profile morning runs are designed to underline that. But the big question is not ‘can he run down the beach?’ but can he run the country, and does he have the clear vision to take Britain in a new direction, and the policies that will make that happen?

The energy question was confirmed in the affirmative yesterday. The bigger questions were not, and therein lies the problem which, according to the FT’s main report above the sketch, cast a ‘pall’ over the conference.

When Britney sang, we knew what to expect, and if we were so minded we could sing along.

When Cameron speaks, some of the individual notes sound fine, but he has yet to write a complete song, and the minute the performance was over, I suspect even the party faithful didn’t really know what to hum as they left the hall. 

*** With the game most definitely on, raise money for Labour by buying individually signed copies of The Blair Years at

  • Fugitive Ink

    You’ve left out one other defect of Dave’s recitation – or was I the only one who detected in the repetition of ‘dark’ (four times in one short speech!), culminating in that closing reference to ‘the incredible dark depression of another five years of Gordon Brown’, a not-quite-subliminal dig at Brown’s mental health?

    Fair enough to attack the opposition – I’m by no means a Labour supporter – but at the same time, if this was intentional on Dave’s part, it was not only shoddy beyond belief, but also sloppy and more than a little desperate.

    Sloppy? As you rightly say, we do, at least, have some idea of how Brown handles a notably demanding job – whereas we have no idea how Cameron might react under pressure, except a bit of anecdotal evidence that he is perfectly capable of getting a bit ratty with subordinates when things get tough. Too much emphasis on Brown’s alleged tantrums could so easily come to mean that if Dave could be shown to have yelled at someone or thrown something, then he, too, is unfit for office.

    As for desperation, that’s all too obvious. As ever, Dave is all things to all men – ‘vote blue, go green’, fronting a ‘modern and radical party’ which is somehow also supposed to attract conservatives – plus he can run a bit, memorise his lines, and keep up at least the appearance (as far as we know) of being reasonably even-tempered. Why any of this should encourage actual Conservatives – let alone anyone else – to vote for him eludes me, but it’s at least pretty clear that whoever wrote the speech felt that the impact of spelling out Conservative policy would, if anything, be any worse.

    As for Britney, I rather admire the way she’s had to deal with unbelievable amounts of public scrutiny, has made some catastrophic messes but always seems to have the nerve to fight her way back from disaster. Whether Dave can do the same remains, I guess, to be seen.

  • Helen Rogerson

    Is that what Gordon’s staff say when he is in bullying mode …. Hit me baby one more time!!

  • Chester Lawson

    Unlike you, I did watch the speech live and I felt as you say he had a lot of energy, but it seemed very forced, and I think the impression developing of Cameron is that he is a bit of a phoney. I know the Tories said the same about Blair but I always felt about Blair that there was a lot of substance behind the smile, and I think his period in office showed that. He took on his party and the unions, and at times the public, in a way Cameron has not really done. And when you looked at his team, no matter how much he talked them up, they looked like a bunch of old tories

  • Charlie

    @ Helen Rogerson
    “Is that what Gordon’s staff say when he is in bullying mode …. Hit me baby one more time!!”

    Excellent….very funny!!

  • Patrick James

    I think the Conservative party conference was a damp squib. In the five important areas of commitment listed they left out the environment. That certainly won’t impress the voters in my ultra-marginal constituency Hove & Portslade.

    I’m very glad to see GB is now being allowed focussing on the various issues that matter. I like that he’s pointing out that the Conservative party is trying to scare people with things that just aren’t true, such as the suggestion that crime has risen when it hasn’t.

    Cashcroft is out of the closet as a non-dom. I see that Cameron wants to “draw a line under the matter”. I hope that the media doesn’t obey.

  • Miles Clarke

    If you’re going to f*** a country, make sure to use a nondom. Al, why didn’t they listen to you??? Was it last week or the week before you said this would become an issue … You were right about that, and I reckon you could be right about Coulson too … Cameron being judged by his friends. Why are the telly unable to find Ashcroft and get him put on the spot?

  • Holly Marsden

    There is a Britney song for everyone … Like when Lord Ashcroft came along and told Cameron ‘I was born to make you happy,’ then burst into ‘I’m a slave for you’ … As the questions about his tax affairs were asked as he tried to buy the marginals Cameron was pleading ‘don’t let me be the last to know,’ But Ashcroft kept stummm … ‘That’s my prerogative.’ Just one word for the pair of them, Britney … ‘ Outrageous’ ….

  • Charlie

    There appears to be a certain amount of hypocrisy over Ashcroft. The following alleged non-doms are all significant contributors to Labour.

    – Lord Paul – £69,250 in donations to Labour, including £45,000 to Gordon Brown’s leadership campaign. A close friend of Gordon Brown and appointed to the Privy Council last summer, he has admitted to being ‘non-dom’.

    – Lakshmi Mittal – £4.125 million in donations to Labour.
    – Sir Ronald Cohen – £2.55 million in donations to Labour. Cohen was appointed chair of the Social Investment Taskforce, which was announced by the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown.
    – Sir Christopher Ondaatje – £1.7 million in donations to Labour.
    – Sir Gulam Noon – £532,826 in donations to Labour.
    – William Bollinger – £510,725 in donations to Labour.
    – Mahmoud Khayami – £985,000 in donations to Labour

    if you live in a glasshouse, it is unwise to start a stone fight!

  • Robert Jackson

    Having told us he’d go out and sell for Britain I bet Conservative industrialists north of Notting Hill were beside themselves when DC crowed, with magnificent gestures, he’d sweep away the regional development agencies.

    Dave, dearest Dave, the RDA’s bat for British industry – they are not just faceless quangos.

  • Ben G

    So the biggest message from Dave’s speech was the fact that he did it without notes. Wow.

  • Rosie

    Being a non-dom and sitting in the Lords or donating to a political party is not currently against the law. Maybe it should, or will be in the future. However, as far as I’m aware, none of Labour’s non-dom donors has covered up their tax status for ten years. None of them has an office at party HQ. None of them flies Ministers in their private planes, or sits in on meetings with overseas contacts. None of them is involved in the day to day election planning. None of them has swamped marginal constituencies with cash.

    Ashcroft’s tax status is only an issue if he is breaking the law, or if he broke a promise to become a fully paid up UK citizen in order to sit in the Lords.
    But the wriggling, weasly cover up in which so many Tory leaders and top brass have connived is very much an issue.

  • Brian Tomkinson

    If you are so confident that Cameron is a loser why don’t you persuade your pal with “the big clunking fist” to call the election for 25 March? Then he won’t need to fight Darling over the contents of the budget and won’t have to hear that we are back in recession during the campaign if he waits until May. More importantly with the pound sinking like a stone and the country’s credit rating dropping we voters can have our say before we are totally ruined. Isn’t that what you would call a win win?!

  • Sam

    If DC wants to talk records, then bring it on!

  • Chris lancashire

    Robert Jackson: I am a Northern manufacturer and in 10 years I can confidently say my local RDA has not impinged on me in the slightest. RDA’s bat for their own bureaucracy – not “for Britain”.
    Scrap them and apply the savings to lowering NI – which New Labour is just about to increase yet again.

  • Kev

    Just read an article in this months wired uk, it’s all about the new Tories and their embracing of new technology. What’s being said about DC having nothing of any real substance to say is true, but after reading the article it makes me feel that there is a real sinister element to his lack of depth. The example given was of techno Tories buying up phrases Darling used in the budget as he was presenting it, the term boiler scrappage scheme was purchased so that anyone googling the term would find a budget ‘prebuttal’ as the first item in the search results. That’s the Tory thirst for power manifesting itself, a rejection of even good honest ideas as they emerge from the chancellor’s lips. I just can’t get the image of an old pensioner trying to get help to get a new boiler, googling the scheme. Just to find a cheap Tory rebuttal. No one with no plans for power is willing to stoop to those depths. The worrying thing is he’s afraid to say what the plans are before the power is handed to him.

  • Robert Jackson

    To Chris Lancashire – I am pleased that you have not needed to call upon the services of your local RDA.

    Many businessmen in the West Midlands have not been so fortunate. Indeed the curremt edition of the Birmingham Post makes clear that the Conservative leadership realises that certain RDA’s might provide a better service than their own proposals for letting local councils get together if they so wish.

    George Osborne, it seems, has been rowing Tory policy back and forth on this for the ears of business in Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country. Ken Clarke has been rowing in very neat circles – perhaps his left oar has been confiscated?