David Cameron hit that nightmare scenario for party leaders - a party conference that coincides with far more significant domestic and international news elsewhere. Thus it was that, out of all three party conferences, the Tories probably achieved the lowest profile, and the Cameron speech was perhaps the least anticipated. He had, indeed, already given two speeches to his conference in any case. In the lead-up to this week, as polls showed them soaring ahead of Labour, David Cameron apparently told his shadow cabinet and MPs not to be too triumphalist at their conference. Seems he needn't have worried - economic woes and the 'no time for a novice' jibe have taken the chtutzpah out of the Tories at what must have once seemed their triumphant return to the major players' league.
As for the Cameron speech, it evinced in many ways the problems that still beset the man himself. Much commentary has centred around its style - that it was delivered from a lectern, and with notes this time, that it was soberly given - rather than the distinctly absent content. Cameron is selling himself, rather cornily, as 'the man with a plan', but the plan is no clearer now than it's ever been. Indeed, while Cameron seeks to deflate hopes of tax decreases in his speech, his shadow chancellor made the only eye-catching announcement of the week in his determination to freeze council taxes. While there is such schizophrenia over the party's tortuous central message, what hope is there for all of the other bits?
David Cameron still looks like a man who can win, but this week has shown, if he didn't know it already, just how fragile that look is, and just how quickly political tides turn. He is a long way from the dominance that Tony Blair was achieving in the run-up to the 1997 election, and that must surely be continuing to give him cause for concern. Man with a plan? The Tories must be hoping that plan includes a winning strategy somewhere along the line.