05/10/2011 08:12 BST | Updated 05/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Nation Running on Empty, but Optimist David Cameron Wants Britain to Summon Appetite for the Fight

If the Lib Dems had their heads in the Birmingham clouds, and the Labour party bore its authentic soul on the Mersey, the Tories have kept their feet firmly on Mancunian ground.

It has been variously described as the "flattest Tory conference" in memory (by Bruce Anderson) and by a sketchwriter in the bars last night as a "charisma free zone". The Tory MPs (what few of them there are here) that I have spoken to will happily take heads-down mundanity over too much excitement this week. One backbencher said, "if Catgate is our gaffe, what a result".

Flat is the party leadership's preferred tempo. David Cameron's speech later today is being trailed partly as a return to the 'sunlit uplands' of opposition but the optimistic tone is to be tempered with brutal honesty that the economy is worse than expected and there is a long way to go.

Invoking the household economics of Margaret Thatcher, Mr Cameron will tell households to deal with their debts: "that means all of us paying off the credit card and store card bills". On a day that Guardian columnist Sir Simon Jenkins implores the Prime Minister to learn from Mrs Thatcher's attention to detail, and a ComRes poll showed 40 per cent think Dave worse than Maggie, perhaps paying homage to the Lady isn't a bad ploy.

But David Cameron needs to spell out a vision beyond the deficit. He will say that there is a light at the end of the tunnel - "Britain is not on a path of certain decline" - but he needs to tell people what will arrest the perceived decline and turn it into an incline. This is particularly important if the coalition gets to 2015 and the economy has not recovered as is wished, something that concerned Tory MPs are contemplating.

There is some confusion over the "credit cards" line, as spinners gave conflicting accounts last night. But discreet word out of Number 10 is that the build-up to this conference speech has been more relaxed than usual.

David Cameron is one of life's natural optimists. He wants the British people to "summon the appetite to fight for a better future". If material economic gains will only slowly fill the nation's bellies, Mr Cameron will need to offer something alternatively holistic to feed the nation's soul.