Sketchwriter Matthew Engel gets all the big gigs. He was the one who outed me as a Britney fan when I felt a tap on my shoulder as she shimmied on stage at Wembley, and Mr Engel was there, to say he was ‘doing a piece on Britney crowds’ and would I like to say what I was doing at one of her concerts? I did wonder myself sometimes, especially once the miming got into full swing.

Yesterday Mr Engel, then of The Guardian, now of the FT, had another performance to cover, and this time the performer was allowing real noise to come from his mouth.

But whilst Britney left thousands of (mainly) young fans screaming in delight, the headline on Mr Engel’s account of David Cameron’s performance at his spring conference suggests it was not A List stuff: ‘Party trick falls flat amid subdued faithful.’

I wasn’t there, having spent the morning travelling back from Burnley, Saturday’s sad defeat followed by a happy testimonial dinner for Jimmy McIlroy, and the afternoon at the Carling Cup Final watching Fergie win again, having earlier heard Mr Cameron say he was supporting Aston Villa.

But the key point in Mr Engel’s piece seems to this. ‘”I’ve got to do a speech without any notes,” he [Cameron] said. Got to? This was not a novelty act. If he had spent less intellectual energy on memorising the speech, he might have remembered to say something fresh and inspiring. Oh, it was well crafted, and well delivered too. He just didn’t have anything to say. And the whole occasion was strangely subdued.’

Subdued, I imagine, because of the shrinking poll lead. Having read a transcript of the speech this morning, I think Mr Cameron was trying to answer the doubts about him that are being raised in focus groups. The main one, raised again and again, is whether he has substance, whether he is more than the super-salesman he sees himself as.

His weakness in the speech seemed to be that he was merely raising the questions people had, rather than giving clear answers to them.

He says he is not complacent and told his Party that he always expected this to be a close fight. I’m not so sure about that. I remember seeing George Osborne shortly after GB took over from TB and my strong sense was of a man who thought with Gordon at the helm, it was game over for the Tories. But they have banked too much on media hostility to Labour, and not enough on the public’s ability to care less about what is occupying the Westminster village, and more about decisions that affect their lives.

They are also prepared to recognise GB’s workrate and resilience, qualities required of modern leaders. Nobody can say Gordon has not been tested. They want to see Cameron tested too, which is why there is considerable irritation out there at the generally one-sided anti-Labour tone of the media debate. There is also a big opening for Labour in Cameron saying he wants a greater focus on the Labour record, which he intends to ‘take apart piece by piece.’

I have been saying for a long time that the three planks of any campaign are record, forward agenda and attacks on opponents. Labour have struggled to get over the scope and scale of the record, and Cameron’s intervention provides an opportunity to do so which should be seized.

Cameron does have energy, and the high profile morning runs are designed to underline that. But the big question is not ‘can he run down the beach?’ but can he run the country, and does he have the clear vision to take Britain in a new direction, and the policies that will make that happen?

The energy question was confirmed in the affirmative yesterday. The bigger questions were not, and therein lies the problem which, according to the FT’s main report above the sketch, cast a ‘pall’ over the conference.

When Britney sang, we knew what to expect, and if we were so minded we could sing along.

When Cameron speaks, some of the individual notes sound fine, but he has yet to write a complete song, and the minute the performance was over, I suspect even the party faithful didn’t really know what to hum as they left the hall. 

*** With the game most definitely on, raise money for Labour by buying individually signed copies of The Blair Years at