It was never going to be an easy conference for a party that has won an election, but failed to win a majority. The backlash to the announcement by Chancellor George Osborne of a drastic cut to Child Benefit came close to turning it into a disastrous one.
What was needed when David Cameron took to the stage of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall to say that it was an ‘honour and a privilege to stand here, in front of the party I lead, in front of the country I love, as the Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’, was something special in the way of a leader’s speech. A touch of Harry to strengthen the sinews of the troops for the coming battle, and by and large the party faithful got their wish.
After paying tribute to his predecessors, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard for, respectively, getting the party ‘back on its feet’, giving it back its ‘heart’ and its ‘confidence’ he launched into a spirited defence of the coalition. On May 7th he had, he said, woken up knowing that what the country needed was ‘leadership not partisanship’, leading him to join with a Liberal Democrat party that had proved to be ‘proper partners’ in the brave political experiment currently being played out and were ‘getting stuck in, making big decisions, shaping what we do and taking responsibility.’
He also launched into the attack on the legacy left by thirteen years of Labour rule, listing spin, attacks of civil liberties and irresponsible borrowing amongst their crimes. Labour were, he said, ‘still in denial’ over the deficit and ‘must never, ever be allowed near our economy again.’
On the benefits that had come close to derailing what should have been a victory parade he said they, and the deeper cuts to come, were based on an understanding of fairness as meaning ‘supporting people out of poverty, not trapping them in dependency,’ for too long action to help the poor had been measured by ‘the size of the cheque we give to people.’
The new style Conservative Party would, now that it was in government would ‘invest in early years care, help put troubled families back on track, use a pupil premium to make sure the kids from the poorest homes go to the best schools not the worst and make sure that work really pays for every single person in our country.’ All that and cut the deficit in time for the next election, big ambitions to match the big society.
On the subject of this pet project he said ‘the old way of doing things; the high spending, all controlling, heavy handed state,’ had been defeated and people power was about to win the day. The age of ‘unchecked individualism’ was over and the age of ‘national unity and purpose’ is about to begin; along with a new age of austerity.
Britain will, on his watch he said become, ‘a nation of go-getters, where people step forward not sit back, where people come together to make life better’, and through tough times in the short term would in the longer term create ‘a life more fulfilled and fulfilling for everyone.’
Government would, Mr Cameron said, play its part in this process but it was up to individuals and communities to pitch in to ‘start those businesses that will take us to growth’ and to ‘step forward and seize’ the opportunities provided by the devolution of power from the centre.
In the tough times to come it was time he said for people to ‘pull together. Let’s come together. Let’s work together in the national interest.’
In what has been a rather muted conference season this was by a long way the most effective speech given by a party leader, although the karaoke statesmanship of Nick Clegg and the pantomime surrounding the Labour leadership contest didn’t set the bar so high.
David Cameron ticked all the right boxes, bashing Labour and the ‘big state’, praising self reliance and playing on the seductive theme of Britain being a country uniquely equipped to cope with hard times due to innate resilience and resourcefulness of its people. That sort of thins always plays well with the Tory grassroots and a large section of the tabloid press, what floating voters made of it isn’t quite so clear.
At the time of the election I wondered which Mr Cameron would govern if he won, Dave the metropolitan liberal or David the rather old fashioned Tory, now we know. Dave has been banished and David has grabbed the crown.
That doesn’t make the cuts his government is about to unleash on the country any less ill advised or the damage they risk doing to the economy any less severe. It does mark him out though as a more formidable opponent that the Labour Party, the trades unions and his opponents within the Conservative Party might have thought.