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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

Defence, the best form of attack?

It was defensive, reactive, combative. Judging from the way he repeated Labour's slogans today, David Cameron clearly thinks that defence is the best form of attack.

I lost count of the number of Opposition lines-to-take that the PM recited in his speech [read the transcript here]. Some were brilliantly inverted and rebutted - "They call us the party of the better off...no, we are the party of the 'want to be better off'" - but most may have simply reminded the voters of the Nasty Party trope.

Here's a few more examples: "the cartoon Conservatives who don't care", "elitist Tories, old-fashioned and out of touch", "we're the same old Tories who want to help the rich" "that's my plan, millions of children sent to independent schools", "he wants children to have the kind of education he had at his posh school". 

A casual listener, not paying attention to the game of inversion of each of these stereotypes, could feel like they're being battered by Dave Spart not Dave Cameron. It looked like he'd taken George Osborne's advice to 'Go Negative' but went negative against himself.

Of course, this was a very calculated and deliberate decision to try to kill off the focus group perception that the Tories are 'only in it for themselves' rather than 'we're all in this together'.

But it's also proof that No.10 knows the Andrew Mitchell story has real cut-through with the voters: a bicycling millionaire sneering at the servant class etc etc. No wonder the rumours are flying that he could quit soon.

Then again, the PM also realised that attack can often be the best form of attack. His zinger soundbite (for those who got the One Nation reference, at least) was "Labour, the party of one notion: more borrowing". 

The crowd particularly loved the passage where he lectured Miliband on the basics of earning your corn: "when people earn money, it's their money, not the Government's money, their money".

His attacks on 'Labour theorists' who stop academies and 'intellectuals' who sneer at aspiration were also part of what's going to be a growing move to paint Ed Miliband as an ivory tower trot, himself out of touch with the punters.

In a strange way it's as indirect an attack as Labour's since 2010. Miliband realised early on that calling Cameron a 'toff' didn't work, so started using the 'out of touch' line instead. So too Cameron now realises that just calling Miliband a 'lefty' may not work, so using the 'nutty professor' line will be more effective. (Though that charge is more difficult after last week's conference).

As for policy, Cameron was right to exploit the big gaping holes in Miliband's speech last week: education reform, welfare reform and economic answers on aspiration. 

On schools reform, only today Pat McFadden helpfully tweeted that:

"[Cameron's] Now praising Labour's academies policy. We'd be daft to let him own that. Wouldn't we?"

On welfare, the benefit cap vote will be rammed home every month til the next election. Sources close to Ed tell me they were more than aware of the 'elephant trap' laid for them by the £26k cap. "We didn't walk into it like Dumbo, with ears-a-flapping," says one. Ed didn't want to play the game of using a minority of benefit claimants to taint all welfare. (He takes a similar line in refusing to play the 'numbers game' on immigration caps).  Still, Labour MPs wonder why the leader overruled Liam Byrne on the cap. And it looks like Labour's only currently welfare policy is simply to cross its fingers and hope the Universal Credit becomes an IT disaster.

Unlike Miliband, Cameron also used this speech to at least tell his party some things they didn't want to hear: on international aid and on planning Nimbys. (That said, he ducked the environment with just 24 words out of 6,000, and gay marriage).

There were flaws and too many 'speech by numbers' moments, zero policy announcements (curious given that was the charge against Miliband, though advisers insist others have unveiled plenty of policy this week), too few applause lines and a general flatness at times. The 'Pepsi moment' attack on Labour didn't quite work. His numbers on public sector staff were misleading at best (note he left out nurses and cops). The reminder of his EU 'veto' only served to underline his lack of a line on a referendum (he said more on the Today prog yesterday than he did today).

Personally, I would have liked more of the personal testimony. The moment when he choked with emotion on that beautiful line about Ivan, together with his genuine pride in his father's 'hard work story' were among the most effective sections for me. "There's nothing complicated about me" may be true, but we still don't hear enough of that human story.

In a mid-term, the economy remains the big issue of course. And with the nation still technically in recession, it felt like Cameron was hamstrung in his attempts to paint the sunlit uplands to which Steve Hilton wants him to point. Next year, it will be easier to point to progress if growth returns  (assuming unemployment doesn't spike).

This speech wasn't a classic but it did the job on the day. It's real work was in drawing the battle lines for 2015. The question for Ed Miliband is whether he is now happy to leave those lines where they are.

At least after this conference season, it's Game On.

 

 

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