Modern conservatism that unites the party’s left and right

Published in The Guardian (October 10th, 2012)

David Cameron will never be an orator whose barnstorming speaking rouses a hall to its feet. He strikes out the flashier phrases, the more flowery paragraphs proposed by his speechwriters, as not being true to his character. But this year’s conference speech, for all its earnest delivery, was his best since he saw off the Gordon Brown election attempt in 2007.

Not just because it contained a handful of memorable zingers – the best of which was the return volley to Ed Miliband, saying Labour was “the party of one notion – borrowing”. Not just for the genuinely moving mention of what the Paralympics meant to him as the father of a child with disabilities. And not just for the skillful and self-deprecating way in which he deflected issues such as his background and his school.

No, it worked because Cameron clearly set out his vision of compassionate Conservatism. For too long, this narrative has been lying almost dormant amid the focus on the deficit. It was explained not just with the simplistic lines that his party was one that welcomed anyone whether they were black or white, gay or straight. Instead, there was a clear argument that there has to be tough action to reform the welfare state so it works for those most in need. And that in doing so, tackling the “toxic culture of low ambition that has held our country back”, Britain would be better placed to fight the challenges of fast-rising nations such as Indonesia and Nigeria as well as the likes of China.

In the best modernising tradition, there was little mention of Europe and no mention of conference crowd-pleasers such as crime and immigration. Instead, there was a definition of modern conservatism that unites the left and right of the party while challenging the shallow one-nation rhetoric of his rivals.

As he drives back to Downing Street, Cameron can reflect on a job well done at the end of a conference in which his party rediscovered its confidence after an abysmal six months. Then comes the harder bit of ensuring all his government’s actions match these fine words, as reforms such as those to disability benefits start to bite.

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