Cameron clothes Tory line in language of aspiration
ANALYSIS:The Conservative leader delivered a subtle message to radical party factions. Rather than defend privilege, he says he will spread it, writes MARK HENNESSY
SOMETIMES ONE can make the mistake of thinking that nothing very much changes at Conservative Party conferences: blue-rinse hairstyles and tweeds are not mandatory but nor are they rare, while industry lobbyists abound.
Underneath, however, there are movements afoot: half of all Conservative MPs were elected for the first time in 2010 and, with exceptions, they are a more radical team than any that has been seen since Margaret Thatcher’s day.
Fringe meetings populated by the 2010 “brigade”, as some have begun to call themselves, were among the best-attended events at the annual conference, in Birmingham, which drew to a close yesterday.
They argue that western countries, particularly Britain, have become flabby, cosseted and lazy, with declining ambition and hunger for success – while developing countries motor forwards.
However, the message they bring – even if much of it is undeniable – is a difficult one, requiring as it does people to work and study harder while getting less help from the state.
Such a pitch to voters by the Conservatives leaves Labour with a simple task of portraying them, once more, as “the nasty party” – a decade-old term, but one which still resonates.
In front of thousands of delegates yesterday in Birmingham, prime minister David Cameron sought to take much of that message, but to clothe it in a more acceptable form as he made a pitch to “aspirational Britain”.
Support for such a message is, and has always been there: it was the cohort that delivered Thatcher’s triumph on the back of a pledge to sell off council houses in the late 1970s.
However, Cameron is not Thatcher Mk II. Rather, his pitch is one where “no one gets left behind” – a promise that will prove ever harder to honour since the real impact of spending cuts has yet to be felt.
The influence of the 2010 MPs on the shape of the Conservatives’ pitch to voters in 2015 should not be underestimated, particularly since they believe that Cameron has not been radical enough.
It would be a mistake, however, to question how radical he has been, particularly in the unprecedented, controversial and highly disputed reforms of welfare, public service pensions and education he has introduced.
In his speech, Cameron sought to drive home a number of messages, particularly that the economic legacy left by Labour has been more difficult to deal with than expected.
Such declarations by prime ministers, however, lose their influence over time, since voters turn their attentions to the people in power, rather than half-forgotten ex-ministers.
Nevertheless, Labour’s record in office still has a half-life. If it did not, Labour would be considerably further ahead in the polls than it is over the Conservatives as the government party seeks to weather mid-term blues.
“We’re here because they spent too much and borrowed too much.
“How can the answer be more spending and more borrowing? I honestly think that Labour hasn’t learned a single thing,” said Cameron yesterday.
Pointing to the challenges ahead, he said Britain had always been confident it could pay its way, but went on: “It has fallen to us to say – we cannot assume that any longer.”
His message left his audience uncomfortable – an audience that had stood to applaud the boisterous optimism of mayor of London Boris Johnson, fuelled by his energy and enthusiasm.
In ways, Cameron’s speech was a direct riposte to Ed Miliband’s address to his troops in Manchester, a speech that did much to solidify the Labour leader’s place.
Cameron, too, sought to put colour on the image that British voters have of him, one that, too often, leaves him portrayed as the out-of-touch standard-bearer of wealth and privilege.
In his speech last week, Miliband had contrasted his schooldays at a north London comprehensive with David Cameron’s days in Eton.
Yesterday, instead of seeking to defend his background, Cameron promoted himself as the one who can deliver opportunity to others: “I’m not here to defend privilege, I’m here to spread it.”
Pointing to his Eton schooling, he said: “To all those people who say, ‘He wants children to have the kind of education he had at his posh school’, I say ‘Yes, you’re absolutely right’.”
Taking a leaf out of the Thatcher playbook, he appealed to young people as they “sit in their childhood bedroom, looking out of the window dreaming of a place of their own”.
The Conservatives, he pledged, would help them to “reach their dreams”, a promise that may prove more difficult to deliver than it is to make, given planning hurdles and the lack of lending.
For some, his comparison between the strivers saving for their own place and others under-25s who go on benefits and “get a flat”, will be seen as simple divide-and-rule.
Indeed, it is, but that does not mean that it is not popular, since the Conservatives are on the right side of public opinion on the issue, while Labour is not – a fact that the party is trying slowly to change.
Opinion was divided last night on Cameron’s speech, as it always is, but it is clear that he delivered a fillip to delegates, one badly needed in the face of their doubts about the competence of both him and his ministers.
On the European Union, he threw some red meat to delegates about his much-questioned veto at last December’s summit, but he delivered no platform pledge on what he will do next.
So far this week, he has been careful to indicate the possibility of a referendum taking place after 2015 on the outcome of treaty talks that will bind euro zone countries more closely, but allow the UK to negotiate a looser relationship with Brussels.
Such a promise will not, however, suffice, given the distrust that exists in the UK about politicians’ promises on the EU.
He will have to go further before the Conservatives next go to the polls, a fact that he undoubtedly knows.
Curiously, he didn’t mention his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. Nor did many others in his team – and when they did, they were mildly appreciative but not demonstrative in their affections.
Significantly, they did not blame the Lib Dems for their failures to deliver on policies: to do so would just show “that you are not in control” said one Conservative official.
Cameron’s omission was, no doubt, deliberate. Even if his delegates continue to demand the Holy Grail of single-party government, he knows the political landscape after 2015 may leave him with no options other than continuing with coalition government – if indeed such an opportunity is given to him.
Mark Hennessy is London Editor