Ed Miliband may be David Cameron's opponent, but Boris Johnson is his enemy. He is the man on the wings, waiting for it all to go wrong, ready to pick up the crown. Cameron's speech reminded the audience that these are serious times for Britain. The message was suppose to relate to Labour, but in truth it was directed inwards. Would you really want a celebrity instead of a statesman to lead the country?
It was a good point, well made. More effective than that, Cameron adopted the start of what could become a successful electoral tactic for the Tories. After foolishly forgetting about aspirational politics, the PM finally returned to it. "I'm not here to defend privilege, I'm here to spread it," he said. "They call us the party of the better-off. No, we're the party of the want-to-be-better-off."
Cameron's appeal to aspirational voters is really an appeal to 'strivers'. They are classic Tories – they want to make something of themselves and they resent people on benefits. But they are alienated from the Tories because they didn’t have a privileged upbringing. It’s the Andrew Mitchell problem. Cameron addressed it head on.
He began his speech painting a dark (some would say borderline apocalyptic) picture of the challenges facing Britain in the global economy. The solution was through cutting state spending and encouraging the innovation and hard work of the British people, who he praised in heavily patriotic terms. Backing aspirational workers was the Tory approach to ending poverty and making Britain succeed in the world. He ended the speech with a reference to his father, and what he had taught him during a walk in their village: "Work hard, family comes first, but put back into the community too."
The argument is coherent. It ties both Britain's success and Cameron's upbringing to Tory values. Britain needs the Tories and the Tories need Cameron. The reference to the shires is not a coincidence either. Boris, for all his British charm, was born in New York.
Cameron delivered the speech well, with a strong, confident, well-paced performance. The passage on his son, Ivan, saw him nearly cry. It seemed genuine and it was touching. The political approach was smart and it addresses some of the weaknesses the Tories have shown in power. It reveals an electoral strategy which proved fruitful for the Tories that came before him and could do so again.
Unfortunately, it also felt a little thin. Instead of focusing on the line of argument, Cameron used it to defend the government's various policies, from NHS reform to free schools. He has an unfortunate habit of walking around the departments of government and reeling off their accomplishments during conference speeches. It gives the feeling of a supermarket checklist. Sometimes the connection was lost.
Justifying a dozen government policies also reveals how defensive the speech was. This is a government perpetually on the back foot and it showed today.
This was particularly damaging given how negative the speech ended up being. Cameron's stall is all about preventing disaster, not really offering anything positive. Few speechwriters or political strategists would suggest a focus on defensiveness and negativity. Most voters will want a more optimistic approach from their political leaders, something to aspire towards (there's that word again), not defend against.
Even if one accepts the Cameron argument on the 'global race', it suggests we dismantle our society and make it more like China or India. Visitors to those countries rarely return demanding a similar approach to the work-life balance or employment regulations. 'Let's work like the Chinese' is not an attractive prospect for voters.
Cameron's final difficulty is that he is in government. He may argue his policies are solutions to the problems we face, but they are visibly failing every day. With a double-dip recession and a growing gap between the rich and the poor, his aspirational message will fall on deaf ears compared to the reality of what people see around them. Miliband, on the other hand, can say what he likes, with the assurance that the only way his policies will be tested is if he wins.
These errors will mean nothing to Cameron, who will be pleased with a successful attack against his real opponent.
Against Labour, the sombre, prime ministerial figure may not defeat optimism and change. But against his own internal enemy it was much more effective. Cameron's speech made it impossible to imagine bumbling Boris leading a country through one of the most dangerous periods of its modern history. Cameron succeeded in his main aim: to remind the Boris enthusiasts why their candidate would be an absurd disaster.
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