Cllr John Jenkins, Deputy Chairman of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire Conservative Association, authors this report from the Welsh Hustings. Later today, James Hellyer will submit the final report - for the Exeter meeting.
The Celtic Manor Hotel in Newport played host to the penultimate hustings of the seemingly never-ending Conservative leadership contest. Both candidates were quick to deploy the racing metaphor of 'entering the final straight' and, predictably, trotted out the tried and tested lines that both candidates were seeing more of each other then their respective wives, cue David Cameron's civic partnership joke, met with groans rather than laughs, suggesting the assembled masses of the Welsh Conservative Party had heard it before somewhere.
To say that the two Davids came to Wales to 'slug it out' would be rather disingenuous as at times the event seemed to be more of a love-in than a battle to the bitter end, all-or-nothing, death-or-glory which the soothsayers in the media predicted such a contest would be. I lost count the number of times the two Davids said they agreed with each other and the amount of times they both - although Cameron said it most - that there was more that unites the two candidates than divides them.
David Cameron opened proceedings, moving away from the lectern to speak, said 'good evening' in Welsh to his audience ('noswaith dda', pronounced correctly!) before delivering his jibe about having "had" Paxman last week. Her spoke very confidently and with passion. On stage, he came across as a very animated public speaker, plenty of body movement and hand actions without looking like a third-rate amateur dramatics enthusiast. His speech seemed to be deep and serious, save for the occasional pre-prepared joke. Cameron's biggest round of applause came when he praised William Hague and 'wouldn't it be great to have William in the Shadow Cabinet?'
Cameron's core theme seemed to be centred on the need to support the Labour Government when we agreed rather than oppose for opposition's sake, although this was met with a muted response in the Hall, although his attacks on Labour, and most of those attacks were on Tony Blair, got the expected applause.
Overall, Cameron performed as well as expected. The speech was delivered in the impeccable style we have come to expect from him since his Blackpool performance. Although the audience received him with polite applause, you got the impression that the room was not really with him on the issue of supporting Blair.
David Davis opened up with a - wait for it - a NEW joke. Highlighting the location of the debate, he asked the audience not to confuse him with the Welsh Assembly Member, recently turned Member of Parliament for Monmouth and near-namesake, David Davies.
Davis' speech was delivered rather stiffly from behind the lectern with his hands clasped firmly on the podium, his body not moving except for the occasional turn of the head and jabbing of the air to emphasise his point.
His speech was far more populist than Cameron's, receiving more applause from the audience, especially for his praise of Michael Howard's leadership, for his traditionalist calls for lower taxes, for the EU to be more like a Common Market and not a superstate and for his particularly savage attacks on Labour, more so targeted against Gordon Brown than against Blair which contrasted from Cameron.
While Davis pushed more buttons than Cameron and got the more rounds of applause, his speech was poorly delivered. Now we all know that Davis is not the best orator on our frontbench and the lower expectations should play to his advantage. However, there were simply far too many stutters, stumbles and going wildly off tangent when he departed from his tried and tested script to overlook this obvious failing of Davis - and I say this as a Davis supporter myself. I found myself agreeing with the substance of Davis' speech more than Cameron however the gulf in presentation was quite wide on the night.
Cameron's words and body language radiated confidence whereas in comparison, Davis, while seeming more sure of the content of the speech was obviously more conscious of the delivery and I think the audience could sense this too as the mere seconds that elapsed when Davis stuttered his words or restarted sentences for a second time seemed to happen in slow motion and the whispered mutterings in the Hall that followed each stutter spoke volumes.
The questions, about 15 in all, only highlighted how little the two candidates differed. The candidate who responded second to each question was, more often than not, reduced to saying how much he agreed with the first responder.
The main difference that could be discerned was the obvious disagreement on how to deal with a mortally wounded Prime Minister Blair. Davis again pushed the buttons by using quite aggressive language about finishing off Blair, hastening his departure through relentless opposition. You could almost imagine when Davis was jabbing his finger that he was visualising bayoneting a bedraggled Tony Blair using all the skills be picked up in the SAS.
Cameron was more reserved, saying the public were fed up of 'Punch and Judy' politics and reiterated his pledge to support the Prime Minister where there was agreement, omitting to mention that the main benefits of such an approach would be to make Blair seem even more isolated and impotent within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Had Cameron used his line he might have got a better reaction in the Hall, as it happened Davis got the louder applause for that question.
Likewise on the two issues of the new Licensing Act and Drugs, Cameron took the softer more liberal line on the two issues, welcoming the reform of the licensing laws and stressing rehabilitation for drug users whereas Davis resoundingly declared his opposition to the licensing reform, saying that there should be no reforms until the authorities learn how to use their existing powers first before getting more powers and then on drugs he again took a much stronger and robust stance against drug abuse than his opponent and this went down well with the audience.
As the debate was in Wales, a question on devolution threw up a subtle difference in attitudes between to two men. Davis staked a claim to being the architect of the 'preferendum' policy of the Conservative Party, that the people of Wales should be trusted to revisit the 1997 devolution referendum and be given the three choices of either abolishing the Welsh Assembly, the status quo or a Parliament for Wales akin to Scotland. Davis was highly critical of the closeness of the 1997 referendum (50.3% in favour of a Welsh Assembly on a 50.1% turnout) whereas Cameron was more inclined not to offer the abolishment option. Both contenders accepted that the decision should be made in Wales and not in Westminster.
The closest the event got to being personal, in an otherwise totally civil encounter, was a question from a young Councillor from Burry Port, Stephen James, who asked how the respective candidates would attract more younger members to the Party. Cameron responded first with the opening line that 'electing a 39 year old as leader would be an obvious start'. This got a good laugh and a loud round of applause although it seemed, at least to me, to be a rather nasty jab at the older contender from someone who has in the past damned his own Party for being too nasty.
The only other disagreement I could find was through another joke that both candidates admitted that they had used many, many times previous. When asked how both candidates would tackle the Liberal Democrats, Davis answering first, admitted to stealing the joke off Cameron and said that he was minded of Cameron's punch line to the joke, 'If you had a Labour MP and a Liberal Democrat MP on the edge of a cliff, which one would you throw off first?' Davis said that Cameron chose the Labour MP - 'business before pleasure' - but Davis said that to him business was a pleasure and would throw both of them off.
So ended the hustings. A no-score draw really as neither candidate got the better of the other. David Davis' message went down better with the audience although his delivery in terms of body language while speaking (gripping the lectern tightly right up until the closing statement when he decided to take a walk around the stage) and while listening (seemed bored, kept looking at his watch all the time).
Davis' poor delivery undermined a solid, competent performance. Cameron, who got less ringing applauses from the crowded room nevertheless delivered his message in a far more eloquent, professional and competent manner. I think supporters of each men would have been enthused by their man's performance, I don't think this hustings will have changed many people's minds when casting their vote.