David Cameron reveals his inner Tory

David Cameron speaking at Conservative conference 2012 David Cameron says he's no "cartoon Conservative"

The general election may be three years away but David Cameron has begun his campaign. He used his conference speech to set out explicitly what he called the battle lines for the election and they run a little like this:

Labour, he claims, do not understand how serious the global economic situation is; the Conservatives do. They accept that the economy is worse than expected, and it will take longer to fix than planned. But progress is being made.

The government is trying to fix the economy not just by cutting the deficit, and eventually debt, but also by trying to get the economy into the right shape so it can compete internationally. That means simplifying planning laws so firms find it easier to build. That means creating more free schools and academies so that there is a better educated workforce. And that means reforming welfare so that more people are encouraged into work.

In other words, he presented an argument that tied together everything the government is doing, and the unifying theme was aspiration. He argued that by encouraging aspiration, the government could also encourage growth. And crucially he said that building what he called an "aspiration nation" was not just an economic mission, it was also a moral one. Reforming welfare, improving schools and creating jobs would help not just those who want to be better off, but it would also help others out of poverty.

And in so doing Mr Cameron revealed his inner Tory, perhaps for the first time in such clear, authentic terms Tory. For years many Conservatives have scratched their heads and wondered what makes the prime minister tick. Is he a metropolitan, liberal Conservative who hugs hoodies and huskies? Or is he a rural, right-wing Conservative with traditional views on Europe and law and order?

Today the prime minister's answer was that he may be an old Etonian from Berkshire with a stockbroker for a father, but he is not on the side of the better off, he is on the side of those who want to be better off. He is not a "cartoon Conservative" who does not care, but a compassionate Conservative who supports anyone who aspires to get on. In his most telling phrase, he said: "I am not here to defend privilege, I'm here to spread it."

Mr Cameron claimed that Labour, by contrast, did not get how serious the situation was. He talked of hard truths and painful decisions, a grave moment and an hour of reckoning, a serious risk that Britain might not remain a major industrial country. Labour, he said, was a party not of one nation, but of one notion, namely borrowing more to try to stimulate the economy, a notion that the prime minister claimed was a massive gamble that would lead to higher interest rates.

So, thus Mr Cameron's argument. A few thoughts in response:

1. It is extraordinary that seven years into the leadership of the Conservatives Mr Cameron is still having to define himself and tell his party what he is about. The world has certainly changed substantially since 2005 and he has had to change with it - no more sunshine winning the day and sharing the proceeds of growth - but it is still noteworthy that he felt the need to explain himself once again.

2. One answer to the point above is that he chose to define himself again because his opponents have spent so much time claiming he was an out of touch old Etonian who was favouring his rich friends with tax cuts. To that end, it was interesting that a substantial part of his speech was a rebuff to Labour's attacks last week.

3. A clear part of the Tories' strategy now will be not just to remind voters of the economic legacy they were left by Labour, but also to remind them of how serious the global situation is. Tory aides fear that many voters have forgotten just what is going on in Europe and elsewhere. They need to do this so that they can have the space to argue that a vote for Labour is more of a risky prospect. In other words, always keep a hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse.

4. This was a speech notable for its absences. Nothing on the coalition, nothing on police and crime; Europe, health and the environment barely touched on. Much of the redder meat - such as spending cuts and bashing burglars - had been left to other ministers earlier in the week. This cleared the way for Mr Cameron to focus on his positive, aspirational Toryism.

5. The bottom line is this. David Cameron today made a strong argument about how he thinks he can make the country more competitive. His conference slogan was "Britain can deliver". The question now is whether his government can deliver? The planning reforms will take some time to kick in, there are many schools that are not yet academies and the welfare reforms are very much a work in progress.

So Mr Cameron has an argument. The test is whether he can make it happen.

James Landale Article written by James Landale James Landale Deputy political editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Its a pity we have to wait another three years to give Dc the chance to run a tory government. I think the dems have done some good things but they are a drag on the change we need. Call an election now

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I really don't get Cameron at all.

    His speeches are sort of aspirational, and "big visions", and sort of what he'd do if he was in power.......

    You know, you've been in power for 3 years, and haven't done anything you've said.

    He hasn't even come close to delivering on even lowering debt, let alone changing the country.

    He acts like an opposition leader

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    The UK is; $9,836,000,000,00 in debt (these figures are over a year old) so for those idiots moaning about cutbacks, open your eyes for pity's sake!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    ...see I want to agree with you its just something about the part he played in the phone hacking scandal makes me think different...

    I don’t recall Cameron hacking anyone phones. Let’s focus on what’s important now, which is turning the country around and government. All this pap about him going to Eton is class jealously. Lets move on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Not one of them have mentioned a single policy yet.

    I hope DC realises we are all incredibly bored of hearing who's fault everything is with no notion of the cure.

    I honestly couldnt care less who put us here, i want to know who has the best ideas to get us out of this position.

    At the moment sticking with the status quo and blaming everyone and everything else doesnt cut it i'm afraid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    How are any of those suggestions going to help anyone on benefits? Same old story - more subsidies and profits for the CEOs and more 'I'm alright Jack' for the people at the bottom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    "he is not on the side of the better off, he is on the side of those who want to be better off" I like that - one of the very few good parts from this speech.

    However, it is the things he chose not to mention that shout the loudest (even louder than his own shouty voice): the huge changes in the NHS, the prevailance of tax avoiders, transport infrastructure (airports, HS2) etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    @ 2.Edward with "David cameron is a decent guy".

    ...see I want to agree with you its just something about the part he played in the phone hacking scandal makes me think different...

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    David Cameron is a decent guy, who I think it trying hard to get Britain back on track. He was delt a bad hand. He has good values and is well intentioned. I hope we can turn things around. Its going to take hard work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Thought Cameron's speech was excellent and hit a serious tone.

    "I am not here to defend privilege, I'm here to spread it."
    Good sentiment - not sure he would have written this line, but strikes a real important theme, rather than the endless drivel on tory/toff/eton background discrimination.

    Milliband's speech was the best presented/delivered speech
    Can't recall much about Clegg's


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