7 Oct 2015

David Cameron tries to return to his liberal Conservatism mission

David Cameron delved into the Tony Blair dressing-up box for this conference speech and more than a few people I spoke to on the way out were having flashbacks to the man George Osborne used to call “The Master”.


Tony Blair’s team always said he used to give two types of speeches. One was when he attacked his own party, the other was when he said: my party’s changed and now we’re going to change Britain.

David Cameron delivered the second one in the canon. He made a big push to own a lot of the political terrain which New Labour used to dominate. His right flank reasonably secure from much belt-tightening rhetoric, this was a moment to advance on the left.

He proclaimed himself a passionate social reformer who wanted more equality, discrimination banished, an all-out assault on poverty and an end to the shaming standards of care services. He talked about needing drastic change in the prisons regime.

One slightly disgruntled Tory grandee who has given quite a bit of money to the party told me on the way out of the hall that “it all sounded a bit like Radio 4, they’re always banging on about prisons. There wasn’t much about hard-working families”.

But in the hall the prime minister got delighted applause and will himself have been delighted to have seen the ovation for his clarion call for an end to discrimination.

Immigration, he told interviewers yesterday, was his number one priority in government. It wasn’t his number one 1 priority in this speech. The economy was dealt with in a fairly cursory way compared with other speeches he’s given.

He attacked Jeremy Corbyn as “Britain-hating,” quite an escalation of attack but one that he’s presumably convinced will resonate with voters.

Ministers who want to support membership of Europe have been signalled they maybe should talk up the occasional virtues of the union. The PM said that as well as knowing what’s bad about the EU “we all know what’s right about it”. But he knows that’s not true. The in campaign has been warning No. 10 about focus groups of floating voters in which the question “tell me anything good about the EU” is greeted by an embarrassed, prolonged and universal silence.

He said Britain is not interested in “ever closer union” and “I will put that right”, suggesting that that particular treaty wording opt- out is something he’s got some assurance could be gained in the negotiations.

He singled out Boris Johnson for praise in the full knowledge that he could really do with the mayor of London on-side in the referendum and in the knowledge that Mr Johnson’s supporters think Downing Street has been involved in articles rubbishing Boris Johnson which they see as political drive-by shootings.

But how much of this is just rhetoric, set-dressing for a smaller state plan? What is David Cameron’s track record on delivery when he outlines a passionate new commitment? One minister I spoke to after the conference said “quite” when I raised  that second point. If you think you’ve heard the prison reform agenda before it might be because you remember David Cameron promising a “rehabilitation revolution” in 2005.

After a passionate attack on discrimination he attacked madrassas in Britain which he said needed regulation to stop them instilling closed minds, isolation and sometimes even brutality on Muslim youth.

The activists cheered a video before David Cameron came on to the stage which showed the seats they’d won on election night. There was a special cheer for Vince Cable’s seat of Twickenham.

But this speech was David Cameron trying to internalise the liberal elements of the last coalition, trying to return to the original mission he set himself when he won the leadership of his party 10 years ago in the name of liberal Conservatism. His team would say the economic crash intervened and required a different focus.

Long marchers from the 2005 Cameron leadership bid will hope it’s a return to his original programme of work. But he now faces the divisive and headline-hogging battles of the referendum, the spending review, welfare cuts and many other issues like Heathrow.

He sounded like a man with his eye on his legacy but he knows prime ministers’ reputations are often shaped by forces they’ve under-estimated or failed to foresee.

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