David Cameron: Labour's the point

David Cameron addressing the Conservative Party conference Image copyright PA
Image caption The prime minister referred to Labour more than any other subject in the speech

Elections are won by the party that defines the question. That is an essential truism of politics and it explains what David Cameron was trying to do today.

Labour want the choice at the 2015 general election to be between which party can best help voters with the cost of living. The economy may be growing but only Labour, so their argument goes, can best ensure that the benefits will be shared fairly.

Thus higher taxes on big business to help small business. Thus fewer profits for energy firms and cheaper bills for consumers. And only Labour, so the rhetoric goes, can make Britain better.

Today the prime minister challenged that analysis. He wishes the election to be a question over which party can best secure the recovery and offer the best vision for the future.

Let's stick with it, he said, and finish the job we have started.

The Tories will support business in a way Labour would not. Profit is not a dirty word. No gimmicks, no quick fix, he said, just more hard work. Being deliberately cautious, he said it was not job done but job begun.

And he went further. The Conservatives, he said, were not just trying to fix the economy, dreaming of decimal points and dry fiscal plans. He said they want to do more than clear up the mess they believe was left by Labour.

They also want to support aspiration, creating what he calls a land of opportunity, helping people to get a job through their welfare reforms, to "rise up and succeed" with their education changes, and grow their businesses by keeping interest rates low. It was an echo of much of what Mr Cameron said in his conference speech last year.

Relentless critique

There was little new policy apart from the idea that unemployment benefit might be docked from the under 25s unless they are in education, training, work or an apprenticeship.

But perhaps what was most surprising was the relentless critique of Labour. Mr Cameron referred to his opponents twenty five times, more than any other of his themes or lines.

The prime minister mocked his Liberal Democrat coalition colleagues just once, briefly and gently, and did not mention UKIP once, despite it being the talk of many fringes here in Manchester.

Instead, Mr Cameron attacked Labour's record in office and what he sees as its failure to understand what is wrong with Britain today and what the country needs for the future.

Let me give you a flavour of some of the attack, just to get a sense of how much time he devoted to Labour:

"We are clearing up the mess that Labour left."

"Who protected spending on the NHS? Not Labour - us. Who presided over Mid Staffs…patients left for so long without water, they were drinking out of dirty vases...people's grandparents lying filthy and unwashed for days. Who allowed that to happen? Yes, it was Labour..."

"The casino economy meets the welfare society meets the broken education system... country for the few built by the so-called party of the many…and Labour: we will never let you forget it."

'Fantasy land'

"We still haven't finished paying for Labour's Debt Crisis. If anyone thinks that's over, done, dealt with - they're living in a fantasy land. This country's debt crisis, created by Labour, is not over."

"Labour have stopped talking about the debt crisis and now they talk about the cost of living crisis. As if one wasn't directly related to the other. If you want to know what happens if you don't deal with a debt crisis....and how it affects the cost of living.....just go and ask the Greeks."

"To abandon deficit reduction now would throw away all the progress we've made. It would put us back to square one. Unbelievably, that's exactly what Labour now want to do.

"How did they get us into this mess? Too much spending, too much borrowing, too much debt. And what did they propose last week? More spending, more borrowing, more debt. They have learned nothing - literally nothing - from the crisis they created."

"Last week Labour proposed to put up corporation tax on our biggest and most successful employers. That is just about the most damaging, nonsensical, twisted economic policy you could possibly come up with."

"We've heard Labour's ideas to help with the cost of living. Taxes on banks they want to spend ten times over. Promising free childcare - then saying that actually, you've got to pay for it. An energy promise they admitted 24 hours later they might not be able to keep. It's all sticking plasters and quick fixes... cobbled together for the TV cameras. Red Ed and his Blue Peter economy."

"The land of despair was Labour...but the land of hope is Tory."

Political weather

Now many in Labour take it as a compliment that Mr Cameron felt the need to make so much of his speech a response to what Ed Miliband said last week at his conference.

They see it as Labour making the political weather, forcing Mr Cameron to sing to their tune rather than set his own agenda. They say the one thing that people will remember from this conference season is their promise to freeze energy bills.

And they note, too, there were no claims that Mr Miliband is weak, until now a familiar Tory refrain.

But Conservatives dispute that analysis. They say that Tory leaders always respond to their Labour counterparts because of chronology, their conferences by convention follow Labour's.

They say that they are responding to Labour because they now have a target, what they see as a left wing set of socialist proposals, something they can push back against. And they also note that they are not responding in kind with what they describe as a short term gimmick to match Mr Miliband's energy price freeze.

That is not to say the Conservatives will not match Mr Miliband's price freeze. They will but they do not feel the need to do so now.

One very senior Tory minister told me that what Labour has done is what oppositions always do and that is defining a problem. But, he said, only governments can actually affect solutions. So he said we should expect some kind of energy price cut, funded by a reduction in renewable subsidies, before the election,

And that is the point. Voters may support the party they think best placed to secure the recovery. But they also might want to support they party they think will most likely keep their bills down.