Sketch: Salesman Cameron clings on at CBI

Suspicion greeted the self-confessed salesman’s pitch. David Cameron was finding this year’s CBI conference a tougher gig than usual.

By Alex Stevenson

“I was once called a salesman,” the slick-haired prime minister said, wrapping up after 40 minutes of intensive selling. “Frankly out there we need a salesman.”

In politics jokes don’t have to be funny to get laughs. At a Conservative party conference this would have had them rolling in the aisles. But this audience, presumably depressed by poor bottom lines and the like, weren’t so keen. It was far from clear, to be brutally frank, that they were buying it.

The prime minister should be philosophical about this. Having dodged the TUC conference last month he might have thought he had escaped a hostile audience. After last week’s cuts, slashing departmental spending by an average 19%, even the CBI was always going to be a bigger challenge than usual.

What more could he have done? Cameron pressed all the right buttons. “I am passionate about competition,” he said, his eyes gleaming. They stared back. He promised a “forensic” approach to growth. The staring continued. Perhaps replacing George Osborne with Inspector Morse would have helped.

Veering perilously close to internet slang, the prime minister even said concentrating on offshore wind infrastructure offered a “triple win”. Labour, by contrast, were guilty of “neglect”, “complacency” and a “backward-looking, unhelpful approach”. Triple fail!

The prime minister tried some of the tricks up his sleeve. It is staggering that, after so much cutting, politicians are still capable of producing ‘announcements’ from nowhere. Cameron had saved up a few from the wreckage of last week’s comprehensive spending review. £200 million on technology innovation centres, or a National Infrastructure Plan (capital letters mandatory), repackaging old initiatives, should have excited his audience. They certainly applauded politely enough – this is the Grosvenor House Hotel, after all – but there was no sense of real enthusiasm in the room, only a bruised wariness at Cameron’s talk about Britain building “a new economic dynamism”.

Taking questions offered better prospects. Various besuited individuals representing the all-important small fry made their points. “Politicians can get terribly seduced by the idea there are just a few big sectors to get behind,” Cameron told the representative from the UK leisure marine sector. “I think the biggest thing for the SME [small and medium enterprise] vote would be finance and bank lending,” he said to a giant of the SME world (is that a contradiction in terms?) An anomymous small- or medium-sized businessman offered a forlorn “hear hear!” Cameron, sympathetic, replied: “Yeah.”

Acting as his own compere while walking around the stage was all very well while it lasted, but it left him in the awkward position of having to talk himself offstage at the end. After making his excuses (he was going to meet some businesspeople, he said) to reduce the rudeness of his exit there came the salesman line. He didn’t quite clinch the deal at the general election. Now in government, it was far from clear he had succeeded in winning over Britain’s petrified businesses.

Cameron was followed by Paul Martin, the former prime minister of Canada, whose rapacious approach to slashing spending in the 1990s has made him the textbook paragon of cutting virtue. Perhaps it was just as well that Cameron had left the building, for Martin offered him a troubling outline of the political risks associated with bold and dramatic cuts. A driver had nearly run Martin over close to Canada’s parliament, he said, remembering the slowly changing expression on the motorist’s face as he realised who he had nearly hit.

“‘Martin’, he said, ‘if I’d known it had been you I never would have stopped’.” A slightly less fawning CBI than usual, in this perspective, doesn’t seem that bad at all.