Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The Cameron decade: A tale of two speeches

I knew it would be good - I just didn't think it would be that good. The Prime Minister had a fairly easy task today - the first Conservative leader to win a majority in 23 years, with a result that was actually an unprecedented achievement for a Prime Minister, he was always guaranteed a pretty warm reaction from the party in the hall. And with a Labour opposition having fled to the fringes of British politics, even a moderately good speech would have been lauded in comparison to that given by Jeremy Corbyn last week.
So David Cameron would have been excused some triumphalism today - wallowing in his unexpected victory, whilst throwing some red meat to traditional Conservatives and veering right to win easy applause. He not only resisted the temptation- he did the precise opposite.

When your opponents have vacated the moderate centre-ground, you can do one of two things: Follow suit by heading in the opposite direction, or seize that ground for yourself. He chose the latter, and then some.  Where he could have played it safe, he redoubled his efforts to challenge the party and broaden its appeal.

It would be easy to say his audacious land-grab was calculated and opportunistic. It was. But it was also authentically Cameron. He really does mean it.  Ten years ago, I worked for the then Shadow Education Secretary, and was with him in Blackpool as he put the finishing touches to his first major speech to the Party Conference.  Today's speech was the natural development of the man who stood up then to make his bid for the leadership and proclaimed:

'Some say that we should move to the right. I say that will turn us into a fringe party, never able to challenge for government again. I don't want to let that happen to this party. Do you?'

He spoke of a new generation of people taking on the world, and looked to the future, promising:

'We can be that new generation, changing our party to change our country. It will be an incredible journey. I want you to come with me. We'll be tested - and challenged. But we'll never give up. We'll never turn back. So let the message go out from this conference: a modern, compassionate conservatism is right for our times, right for our party and right for our country.'

The party did come with him - slowly, and often sceptically, but it did. When he fell short of a majority in 2010, they grumbled, but kept faith. When he introduced equal marriage, protected the NHS budget and international aid, some harumphed, but the fuss soon died down.   And as he promised, he didn't turn back.  So today he was able to say, with some justification:

'Ten years ago, I stood on a stage just like this one and said if we changed our party we could change our country. We’ve done that – together. I didn’t campaign on the NHS alone – you joined me.
It wasn’t just me who put social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world’s poorest at the centre of the Conservative Party’s mission – we all did.'

That was the historical background, and it was gratifying for those of us who consider ourselves Tory modernisers to hear that vindication, and his unapologetic pride in his progressive achievements. But it was only the beginning. The rest of the speech today brought wave after wave of renewed, centrist ambition. He reclaimed the mantle of 'One Nation', declared his determination to deal with deep-rooted social problems, deal with the housing shortage, launch an 'all-out assault on poverty', reform prisons and improve social mobility.  

But the most striking and powerful section was on equality.  It bears reading in full: 

'We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally.  Think about it like this:  Opportunity doesn’t mean much to a British Muslim if he walks down the street and is abused for his faith.  Opportunity doesn’t mean much to a black person constantly stopped and searched by the police because of the colour of their skin. 

'Opportunity doesn’t mean much to a gay person rejected for a job because of the person they love.  It doesn’t mean much to a disabled person prevented from doing what they’re good at because of who they are. I’m a dad of two daughters – opportunity won’t mean anything to them if they grow up in a country where they get paid less because of their gender rather than how good they are at their work.

'The point is this: you can’t have true opportunity without real equality.  And I want our party to get this right.  Yes us, the party of the fair chance; the party of the equal shot.  The party that doesn’t care where you come from, but only where you’re going.  Us, the Conservatives - I want us to end discrimination and finish the fight for real equality in our country today.'

The conference delegates rose and applauded.  It was quite a moment - and along with the rest of today's speech, a potent symbol of how Cameron has genuinely led his party, rather than followed it.  

Ten years ago, a plucky outsider stood before a defeated party and told them to choose the difficult path of modernisation and reform instead of retreating to their comfort zone.  Today, a victorious Prime Minister stood before his party and his country and left them in no doubt he is sticking to that path.  He was right to do so, and they should trust him again. 

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