12/10/2012 07:55 BST | Updated 12/12/2012 05:12 GMT

Rhetoric Over Reality

The UK economy has been flatlining for two years, unemployment remains close to a 17-year high, bank lending has stagnated, living standards for most are falling, the housing market is stuck and the fiscal outlook is deteriorating. Perhaps it wasn't surprising that the annual party conference season favoured political positioning over policy prescription.

In his speech to the annual Conservative Party conference this week, the prime minister, David Cameron, reiterated that there would be "painful decisions" to be made over the economy, backing up his chancellor's earlier warning that many more years of austerity lay ahead. However, he ducked concrete policy pledges - and any mention at all of his junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats - to try and sell his vision of the Tories as the party of opportunity.

The prime minister admitted that economic recovery was taking longer than expected, but insisted that the foundations for recovery were being laid, despite the double-dip recession and stalled deficit reduction. But his claim that "Britain is on the right track" lacked credibility, as did much of his analysis of the economy, of its relative strengths and weaknesses, and the thinking behind his government's unwillingness to consider a shift in policy. He tried to draw a contrast between a Labour Party still distrusted over the economy since the financial crisis erupted in 2008-09 financial crisis (mostly true) and the competent Tories (increasingly less so), arguing that Labour offered no credible alternative to his deficit-reduction policies and that the country could only weather the problems under his leadership.

In an attempt to answer criticism that his vision for the country remained unclear after seven years as party leader, he sold his policies as a way to give people more of a chance to better themselves, and to allow Britain to emerge from the present crisis in a much stronger position to compete internationally. It was a clear retort to the previous week's conference speech by the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, who had laid claim to the old Tory "one nation" tag in a cute attempt to grab the political centre ground. According to Mr Cameron the Conservatives, in contrast, are the party for the aspirational classes. Labour, he said, is "the party of one notion: more borrowing". Mr Miliband's one nation rhetoric was a cloak, he claimed. "We don't preach about one nation but practice class war", he said in a crude reference to the Labour leader's allegedly hard-left views. "We just get behind people who want to get on in life."

Mr Cameron's speech was heavy on ideology, aimed squarely at working and lower-middle class voters, the aspirational classes who famously helped Margaret Thatcher hold on to power in the 1980s. This was in sharp contrast to Mr Miliband's speech, which had been heavy on personality, no doubt mindful of opinion polls suggesting that while Labour continues to enjoy a decent lead over the Conservatives, only a minority of voters - around one in five - appear to trust Mr Miliband as prime minister. Mr Cameron, although increasingly under fire from critics and disgruntled Conservatives alike, still enjoys double the Labour leader's personal support. Thus, in a bid to boost his popularity, much of Mr Miliband's speech was devoted to his personal background, emphasising that he went to a state school (in contrast to the Eton-educated prime minister) and that his parents arrived in the UK as refugees.

That said, Mr Cameron also felt the need to define himself in his speech, in an attempt to answer charges that his wealthy background made him detached from ordinary people. He tried to give people some insight into his notoriously elusive character, and personal motivations, while praising his disabled father, for his achievements and for instilling in him the importance of hard work. All of this was the backdrop to explain the final aim of his policies, to allow a leaner Britain to succeed against intensifying international competition, preparing the country for a "global race" against the likes of China and India.

This, in a slightly academic manner mixed with some populist rhetoric, was Mr Cameron's explanation of the broader vision informing his policies. A leaner, better educated, less welfare reliant Britain would emerge from the economic crisis left by Labour to compete more effectively across the globe, in contrast to the stagnation elsewhere in Europe. As a message, it mixed an appeal to popular indignation at the feather-bedding of the jobless with an explanation of why everything from the NHS to education needed to change for the country to prosper. "Unless we act, unless we take difficult, painful decisions, unless we show determination and imagination, Britain may not be in the future what it has been in the past." Many may agree with the sentiment, but the economic reality on the ground raises many awkward questions of how this can actually be done.

Polls continue to show that voters prefer Mr Cameron as prime minister to Mr Miliband, but that they prefer Labour over the Conservatives. That might well change before the next election in 2015, but there is little to suggest that Mr Cameron's grand vision will be sufficient to persuade more voters to back his party. A few days before his speech, the IMF again reduced its 2012 growth projection for the UK economy, in a widely publicised move (incidentally moving it into line with the Economist Intelligence Unit's long-held forecast of a modest contraction). It has been a difficult year for the prime minister, with the economy back in recession, missed deficit targets, some loud squabbling over Europe and (so far unsubstantiated) speculation over a future challenge to his leadership, perhaps from the popular London mayor Boris Johnson. His speech won polite applause, but will change few minds.