By Mark Wallace
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The Prime Minister is in Stirling today, at the Scottish Conservatives' Annual Conference to meet MSPs (pictured above) and activists – and deliver a rallying cry ahead of next year's independence referendum.
There are several notable elements to his speech:
The most high profile issue is of course the referendum on Scottish independence. It is a remarkable measure of the extent to which the main parties are co-operating on the Better Together campaign that its Labour figurehead, Alastair Darling, is attending a Tory conference. As Cameron puts it
"When one of our conference darlings is a Labour MP – you know that this isn’t about party politics. Because we all know that we’re stronger together. Richer together. Better together."
The victorious, cross-party No2AV campaign is providing a useful guide for building the Better Together outfit. In effect, setting up a national referendum campaign is akin to establishing a whole new political party – from a head office down to a co-ordinated, motivated grassroots – and with twice as much disagreement within its ranks. That is why Cameron is reaching out across the usual party divide.
Cameron also sets the tone for the campaign:
"…it’s not just about the cold-hard facts. It goes much, much deeper than that. This is about the future of our island. The next chapter in our story. Our United Kingdom’s history has always been one of shared endeavour. Proud in our individual identities – but working together for a common good. We saw it when our soldiers fought together under one flag on the beaches of Normandy."
Aside from the nod to 'Our Island Story' – Michael Gove's favourite history book – this brings an encouraging duality to the Better Together message. A successful campaign shouldn't view numbers or emotions as an either/or choice – it must bring the two together, persuading voters by the head and the heart at the same time.
Hug a swivel-eyed loon
As with any conference speech, this one is has to speak to those in the room as well as those watching the evening news at home. The fact that it opens with a personal message of thanks to the Tory grassroots is telling:
"I want to start by saying how grateful I am to you – the people who make our party what it is. Week in week out you’re the ones out there – speaking to voters, delivering the leaflets, fighting for us every step of the way. I’m always humbled by your work. So let me thank you. Now friends – we’ve got some huge battles coming up."
This is Cameron's first public appearance in front of party members since the rather clunkily titled 'Swivel-eyed-loon-gate', and he is making the most of the opportunity to implicitly rebut the widespread suspicion that he agrees with the person only identifiable as the equally clunky whoever-it-might-be-who-might-or-might-not-have-issued-the-reported-insults.
Rejecting leadership challenges
The Prime Minister is not the only Tory leader with backbencher problems. Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader may have rather smaller backbenches than Cameron, but she is still facing discontented rumblings from opponents and former allies within her own ranks.
It is no surprise then that he describes her as "the ideal leader". Leaders stick together – particularly when there's trouble in the air.
There have only rarely been glimpses of a simple, clear strategy at the heart of Cameron's premiership. That does not necessarily mean there isn't any strategy – many a good plan has been undone by a party's opponents finding out about it. But today's speech features a classic strategic message presentation – on the model campaigners and consultants would regularly use with their clients.
For a start, the PM's stated mission can be summed up in a single sentence:
"To turn our country around and give all our people the best chance of success."
There is a strategic context: that we are in the oft-mentioned "global race", a race in which we must ensure our country succeeds.
And there are five tactics listed to do achieve that aim [I've added the numbers]:
1. Cutting our deficit.
2. Educating and providing skills for our young people.
3. Firing up enterprise.
4. Fixing welfare.
5. Above all – keeping our United Kingdom together.
That Cameron's plan has become so sleek and easy to communicate points to two things. First, that there has been serious time and effort put into honing his strategy and message, aided by people whose primary expertise is in campaign strategy, ie Lynton Crosby. Second, that this is a fully fledged, long-term plan – as well as being the Scottish Conservatives' Annual Conference, this is also a larger political milestone.
We are less than two years away from the General Election – it is encouraging to see what appears to be a guide to how David Cameron intends to fight it.