Detail maybe, but no commitments

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor The message is so good, he'll say it twice. Having addressed the Tory conference on Sunday, David Cameron will do so again today - and thereby bring the gathering to a close.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

The message is so good, he'll say it twice. Having addressed the Tory conference on Sunday, David Cameron will do so again today - and thereby bring the gathering to a close.

The speech will need to be markedly different. And the Conservative leader has promised “to talk in detail about the important issues we face as a nation - and what our response will be”. But that will not include any up-front commitment to tax-cutting. Mr Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne have been banging away on that theme for quite a few days, and continued to do so yesterday. “I want lower taxes”, declared Mr Osborne. But they would not come at the expense of expansion of the public services or economic stability and low inflation and mortgage rates.

It's not what Lord Tebbit, Edward Leigh and other Thatcherites want to hear. It's possibly not what many floating voters want to hear either. But - against a background of continuing accusations that there's no beef - it definitely has substance.

I hope, by the way, that Mr Cameron will not be extending today his already rather tiresome metaphor about building a house (after preparing the ground and laying the foundations). Last week in Manchester Bill Clinton kept referring to the need for “home improvements” (by which he meant making Britain and the US better countries). I am beginning to think next year's party conferences will be sponsored by Homebase.

It's quite likely that polls at the end of this week will show that the Conservatives have opened a modest lead over Labour again. Things have gone very smoothly for Mr Cameron. Dissent - essentially about tax - has surfaced, but it has been easily contained. After three consecutive general election defeats, and four changes of leadership since the first of them, there is little appetite for undermining Mr Cameron. And he can get away with saying things that are very hard to reconcile with the Thatcherite orthodoxy of not so long ago.

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Will we learn much today? I'll be surprised if we do. The speech is likely to be more than a little similar to one of Mr Blair's. There will probably be a lot more mood music aimed at persuading nice, modern people that they can vote Conservative without feeling guilty. And it seems that in that respect Mr Cameron has already made much progress.

Who actually dislikes him? Anyone? It might be said that not enough is known about him to generate hostile feelings, and that being liked didn't save John Major from an electoral clobbering in 1997. But seriously, for the Conservatives, not being hated is a very useful start.

What you can achieve in opposition depends very much on the government. And Mr Cameron's hopes of leading his party from the wilderness will be heavily affected for the better or worse by the outcome of the approaching change of leadership in 10 Downing Street.

Quite a few scenarios are possible. Gordon Brown could take over, unveil several dazzling initiatives, establish a commanding poll lead, call a snap general election to establish his own mandate and win a big majority in the Commons. He could also succeed Mr Blair but fail to have any political honeymoon and preside over a lengthy but relentless drift towards electoral defeat. He might even fail to win the keys to No 10 and see them passed to John Reid.

Given such great imponderables, it is easy to understand Mr Cameron's reluctance to commit himself to very much at the present. Why nail many of your colours to the mast when the nature of the political battle could look very different in six months' time?

Hazy political images - like the Tories' bizarre new oak tree emblem - will not satisfy many people for very long, however. And there was a clear warning to Mr Cameron in the weekend poll putting both Labour and the Tories on 36pc and another poll indicating that the public think Mr Brown would make a poor premier but a better one than he.

The chancellor's Scottish gloominess is not attractive. Mr Cameron's “sunshine” is. But substance has more appeal than froth, and Mr Brown cannot be accused of lacking the former. Clement Attlee was hardly a barrel of laughs, but he won two elections (and he was up against Winston Churchill). Moreover, after a decade of Mr Blair, the limitations of charisma probably do not need emphasising.

Starting today, the Tory leader needs to disprove the critics who suspect there is little gravitas to go with the style. It is possible that Labour will find one of several ways of handing him power on a plate. But he can't count on it.