David Cameron rallies the Tory faithful at conference

The only things missing were the pom-poms.

David Cameron came to Edinburgh to rally the Scottish Tory faithful, usually an unhappy task for a Conservative leader.

The party has been in the doldrums north of the border for so long that Mr Cameron’s predecessors have copied and pasted the same speech year after year.

“The Tories are coming back in Scotland. We’ve rebuilt our operation. The feedback on the doorstep is increasingly positive. We’re heading for the long-elusive breakthrough. Next year in East Renfrewshire.”

And every time it’s another let-down for the Conservatives, as Scots in even the more affluent areas where once the Tories dominated cleave to their Labour MP.

But the mood is more buoyant at the first Tory gathering since the referendum. The party, and particularly its leader Ruth Davidson, is considered to have had a good referendum. In the no-holds-barred fight for the life and soul of the Union, the Conservatives were in their element. For the first time in years – decades, even – they got to be confident and unapologetic about what they believe and why.

This has yet to pay off in the polls but if optimism could be traded in for vote share, the Tories would be doing quite nicely. While Scottish Labour slowly begins to realise that it is the Road Runner treading thin air after screeching over the cliff, and the Lib Dems pray for a quick death, the Conservatives are united after their first political victory in Scotland in a generation.

That is probably why the Prime Minister’s speech to conference was notably light on policy. Why harsh the good vibes with dreary substance?

The only real ‘news’ in the twenty-minute address was the decision, trailed earlier during a visit to BAE Systems at Govan, to build the next generation of Royal Navy frigates on the Clyde. This, he said, would involve a cash injection of £859m and sustain more than 600 jobs in Scotland.

Philip Hammond, then defence secretary, had warned during the referendum that future UK warships would not be built in a foreign country. Mr Cameron’s announcement was intended to make good on those pre-September pledges that a No vote would secure shipbuilding in Scotland.

The tenor of the speech, however, was more that of a rally than an explication of centre-right philosophy or the outlining of a policy framework.

Much of this ra-ra air-punching involved lauding Ruth Davidson, the Scottish leader whom Cameron recognises as a real talent. Two women, he said, kept him “sane” during the referendum. One was his wife Samantha and the other was the Glasgow MSP.

“The woman who kept battling for our United Kingdom, slugging it to Salmond. It was our very own fighter from Fife.

“Helping to save the United Kingdom – it’s not a bad thing to have on your CV at the age of 36.

“During the course of that campaign Ruth really went the extra mile, even appearing on a double bill with George Galloway. That’s what you call taking one for the team.”

The delegates loved this because they see the same qualities Cameron sees.

Then there was the cheerleading for the Conservative government – no one here is still referring to it as a coalition – and the Tory leader contrasted the economic mismanagement of the later Labour years with his record. He had brought, the hall heard, economic growth, job creation, tax cuts, and safeguarded pensions.

It was what a critical studies professor would call “a radical interpretation of the text”. But unhelpful details and nuance have no place at a party conference. It is not only the Nationalists who can cheerily subdue reality when it suits them.

Cameron is inevitably portrayed as a Tory bogeyman in Scotland, as bastardly as all the bastards who have gone before. But he appears to care sincerely about ingrained, multi-generational poverty and its morally corrosive effect on people and communities.

He said: “Chris White is 18 years old, he’s from the Sandyhills area in the East End of Glasgow – not too far from Easterhouse. When he left school last year he thought he’d get straight into a job – but he had rejection after rejection. Why? Not enough work experience.

“So thanks to the programme that we brought in, Chris was offered the chance of work experience at his local Job Centre. His confidence grew, he got into the world of work, and now he’s got a permanent job – full-time, a regular wage – and he’s loving it.

“He says work experience made all the difference to him. But remember what our opponents said about our plans for work experience? They thought it was heartless and cruel to ask young people to go out to work.

“Don’t these people get it? Lives are being changed. People are working their way out of poverty and into something better.”

Cameron’s plummy tones brought to the word “Sandyhills” a quaint amiability. It sounded less like a poverty-stricken outpost in Glasgow’s east end and more like a Golden Girls-inspired retirement resort in Miami.

But for all that Cameron is not of the world he described, and has little in common with the people who live there, he is undoubtedly genuine in his concern about the spiritual poverty caused by socio-economic exclusion and authentically angry about what he sees as the left’s preference for welfare over work.

He wasn’t just bigging up his own side, though; he was getting stuck in about Labour and the Nationalists. The SNP wants to break up Britain, he said, while the Labour Party would bankrupt it. And the combination of the two – well, that would send the country hurtling into a dire Marxist dystopia.

The man they really call “DC” said: “A vote for anyone other than the Conservatives risks Ed Miliband becoming Prime Minister, leading an unstable minority Government. A vote for the SNP is a vote for Labour in Government.

“Nicola Sturgeon has made clear she is up for a coalition with Ed Miliband. As Ruth has put it, the SNP and Labour are halfway up the aisle together already. She’s right. They’ve picked out the wedding list. They’ve booked the honeymoon – probably to North Korea. They’ve set up a joint account – unlimited overdraft obviously.

“And so if you vote for anyone else apart from the Conservatives, you are voting for this outcome: Labour in Government, Ed Miliband in Downing Street and the very real prospect of Alex Salmond coming in through the back door.

“Like a horror movie – he’s back. Only this time – he’s not running Scotland. He would have the decisive say in running a country he wants to see abolished – our United Kingdom.”

Labour, he demanded, must rule out any pact with the Nationalists. To fight the SNP in the referendum and then buddy up with them in government would be “spineless, weak, unprincipled, and short-termist”.

The door-knockers and envelope-stuffers in the room gave their UK leader a standing ovation but nothing he said today is likely to dissuade those soft-Tory voters who have resolved, even privately, to vote Labour to keep the SNP out. They didn’t vote to save the Union six months ago only to see it rent apart by constitutional concessions extracted from a weak Labour government by a large bloc of Nationalists. If that means holding their nose and voting for the socialists, so be it.

How many will do so isn’t clear. The polls suggest any tactical vote isn’t yet sizeable. That, however, might change as the prospect of Westminster dancing to a Salmond-led tune becomes more real in the coming weeks. If it does, so go the hopes for the Tories of picking up another seat.

But if David Cameron, and particularly Ruth Davidson, can convince the 400,000 Scots who backed the party in 2010 to stay in the fold, they might pull off a result that can form the basis of a real breakthrough.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Number 10 by Creative Commons 2.0.

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