Party conferences and the leader’s speech do not usually change much in the bigger political picture. But as the Tories head up to Manchester, questions around Syria, UKIP’s polling performance and an attention-grabbing – if divisive – speech by Ed Miliband mean that Cameron needs to perform.
Given the conference order, Cameron has the advantage of being able to react to his competitors and set his own agenda for the coming political season. Tuesday will be his eighth conference speech and over this time his pitch has changed as he has moved through the electoral cycles and from opposition to power.
Phase 1: the candidate of hope
Before the election, Cameron used his speeches to dwell at length on ‘Broken Britain’. He portrayed a Conservative party that would fight for the very poorest in society.
Once in Government he set out his ‘Big Society’ idea, attempting to define a programme to help the most vulnerable without reliance on the “nanny state”. Definition proved difficult: after a record 10 appearances in his 2010 speech, it received only one self-deprecating mention in 2012 and the concept was dropped.
In its place has come the safer Tory territory of the “aspiration nation”, where anyone who works hard and plays by the rules can succeed.
Phase 2: the statesman
Prime Ministers are seldom elected on their foreign policy stance but once in power discover that defining Britain’s place in the world is one of the major demands of the job.
Accordingly, Cameron’s speeches, much more than those of Clegg or Miliband, have spent time on foreign policy, and in particular on foreign conflicts.
He has devoted time to Afghanistan (2010, 2011 and 2012) and Libya (2011), revealed Britain’s “leadership in fighting tyranny” and the country’s courage to “do the right thing”.
His challenge this year will to be to find the words to present his policy on Syria in a way that reinforces his statesmanlike credentials.
Outside of commentary on specific conflicts, Mr Cameron has used his recent speeches to inspire Britain to success in the “global race”. And of course he has found time to address that Tory preoccupation, Europe.
Phase 3: The election campaigner
Cameron will be under intense pressure in 2015 to deliver his party the majority he had promised in 2010. This year and next will see his speech aimed squarely at securing that victory.
Revving up the party for campaigning requires some triumphalism over Lib Dem setbacks: in 2011 he applauded his party for “kick[ing] that useless voting system [AV] off the political agenda”.
He also has to take the fight to Ed Miliband’s Labour. Last year he mocked Miliband’s ‘one nation’ theme and economic policy in one soundbite: “Labour the party of one notion: more borrowing.” Following a Labour leader’s speech packed with left-leaning policy announcements, Mr Cameron will look to reign down further blows on an opponent who he will face at the polls in nineteen months.