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David Cameron is about to deliver his speech to the Conservative party conference. It’s his big opportunity to respond to Gordon Brown’s claim that, amid the global financial crisis, this is “not the time for a novice”. Follow his address live on politics.co.uk.
The Tory leader is seen striding purposefully across the bridge which links to the conference centre in Birmingham. He’s a bit nervous, he admits, but this can often be a handy thing. He’s got a lot to live up to after his barnstorming performance this time last year.
Senior members of the shadow Cabinet are applauded to their seats, William Hague and George Osborne looking especially pleased with themselves, as the big buildup continues. First, though, Baroness Warsi tells a joke and delegates watch a video.
At the appointed hour Mr Cameron comes striding out on to the stage to the usual standing ovation. Senior Tories are on the stage behind him – it’s a visual contrast with last year’s empty stage for him to pace on.
He begins by saying how pleased he is that “everyone is in tune” – a jibe at Labour there – before properly starting with a repeat of his bipartisan rhetoric “in the short-term to ensure financial stability”. A repeat of “short-term” underlines his point: “the mistakes have been made”, after all, so it’s the Conservatives’ job to explain how to do it otherwise. A neat pivot from yesterday’s cooperation to today’s expected attacks on Gordon Brown.
An early starter for ten is the armed forces and Afghanistan. A few logical steps from pullout to “more slaughter on our streets” justifies the Tories backing our troops “100 per cent”. Big round of applause for that, unsurprisingly. As with all good conference speeches Mr Cameron inserts a personal story about an 18-year-old soldier he met. And then a lament about all the things which are wrong with Britain’s treatment of those armed forces – easing from approval to criticism is the theme so far. Slipping in a note of triumphalism about yesterday’s Ghurkha court ruling is the perfect addition here.
“These are times of great anxiety. I know how worried people are. They want to know whether are politics and, let’s be frank, our politicians are really up to it,” he says. Here’s the key section: character and values are what people want to know about, he says. Mr Cameron says his most important world is “responsibility”. And he says he asks simple questions about every judgment he makes based on these lines.
Mr Cameron is explaining what you have to do when you’re handling a crisis. “You cannot prove you’re ready to be prime minister – it would be arrogant to tell people you can. The best way is to tell people who you are, how you make decisions, and how you live with them.” This is personal stuff – much more personal than the prime minister’s effort this time last week.
The Tory delegates engage in a burst of frenetic applause as Mr Cameron mentions the union as an example of his judgment. “I want to be prime minister of the United Kingdom,” he says, before admitting: “I know that sometimes my party gets it wrong and other parties get it right.” “Simple principles” are oozing out of every sentence at the moment. This speech is an exposition of his fundamental political outlook. “Go with your conviction, not calculation,” he says. “The right thing will always be right.”
Having built up to some big points about spin, without actually mentioning the world, he warns “difficult and unpopular things” are looming. “I believe that to rebuild our economy it’s going to take change. I believe that to repair our broken society we don’t need more of the same, we need change. Experience is the excuse of the incumbent down the ages.” This is directly addressing the “novice” jibe from last week. “Experience is what they always say when they want to say,” he says, before citing James Callaghan as an example of useless change. “Thank God we swapped him for Margaret Thatcher,” he says. A huge round of applause here, as months of pent-up adoration for the Iron Lady are released.
Now Mr Cameron moves on to the current situation. He blames the authorities, and “irresponsible” bankers in the City for whom he warns a “day of reckoning”. Ultimately, though, the prime minister is at fault. He “changed the rules of the game but took the referee off the pitch” while turning into a “spendaholic”. “The cupboard is bare.”
The solution to the current crisis is by getting borrowing down – by giving the Bank of England’s power to limit debt in our economy would be restored. That’s an announcement and a half. Government borrowing will be reined in, he says, before fawning on his shadow chancellor and pledging to destroy “all those useless quangos and initiatives”. There’s going to be a bit of belt-tightening in the shadow Cabinet and the ‘Office of Budget Responsibility’ outlined by George Osborne yesterday.
Quite a large section of his speech now has been dedicated to repeating Mr Osborne’s announcements. He can’t be blamed for that, of course, as there’s nothing more important in British politics at the moment. He reverts to old-style Tory attacks on Labour’s “reckless spending”. Then there’s a build-up to something on tax cuts, but he again says “responsibility” is needed to ensure public spending cannot change immediately. He says the Tories have to be able to “say no even in the teeth of protest”. Easy to say with a double-digit lead in the polls, while there are brief flickers of a Conservative government to come.
After a joke about sleeping with entrepreneurs – his wife Samantha, specifically, he moves on to name-check the high-speed rail network proposed by shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers on Monday before slipping in his priorities for both the NHS and the “broken society”.
He quotes David Miliband saying that unless government is on your side you end up on your own. “I thought it was one of the most arrogant things I’ve heard a politician say.” He accuses Labour of believing there is nothing inbetween the individual and the state. “No such thing as society – just them, their laws, their rules and their arrogance. You cannot run our country like that.” Erm, didn’t Thatcher say there was no such thing as society? The audience loves it, giving him his biggest round of applause so far.
“It’s not the leader, it’s Labour,” he continues. “This whole health and safety, human rights culture, has infected every part of our life.” Strong stuff here – Shami Chakrabarti won’t be happy – as he talks about teachers needing a first aid officer present to give children plasters. “We have got to end this nonsense,” he says, earning another massive round of applause.
“Broken politics” is the next target, mentioning the word “sleaze” against Labour in another reversal of previously accepted logic. This is a cue to deliver a whole range of scattergun attacks, including a commitment to hold the referendum on the Lisbon treaty – despite the fact it’s already been ratified.
On the public services he says: “We’ve had 11 years of superficial short-term tinkering.” He says Labour has ripped out the NHS’ soul and replaced it with targets and management. Quite a neat example here, if a bit emotionally manipulative: a wordy letter from Alan Johnson about one of Mr Cameron’s constituents who died of MRSA. “God, we’ve got to change that,” he says in his most animated section yet. The Tories love it.
Mr Cameron claims to be “the party of the NHS” and says “under my leadership that is how it’s going to stay”. He’s playing the leadership card quite a bit here, but what seems most significant so far is his attacks on Labour as a whole rather than Gordon Brown in particular. It’s markedly different from his usual party political performances.
Time now for the section on the “broken society”. He thinks those who disagree that assessment are living on another planet, citing gun and knife crime, alcohol-related crime and the “angry harsh culture of incivility” which he says have disappeared within a generation. A lengthy list of the different types of people you find in prison ends with a point about understanding the causes of crime.
He’s certainly ticking all the Tory boxes today. “In times of stress and anxiety the family is the best welfare system there is,” Mr Cameron says. Business pays the cost of family breakdown in its taxes – so everyone needs to do their bit to promote the family. And then there’s the tax issue: he doesn’t want to “aggravate” anyone, but those who choose to get married deserve tax breaks because of their commitment.
Schools are the second chance when families are failing, according to Mr Cameron’s view of the world. He applauds the Tories’ “radical” plans to end the state monopoly and allow new schools to be set up. He pledges a “declaration of war” against dumbing down, in more fighting talk. The level of small-c conservatism here is quite breathtaking and is markedly different from his previous rhetoric. Mr Cameron is raising his game here – but how will the voters respond?
Welfare reform is the “pitched battle” of the reforms planned by the next government, he says. The culture of a commitment to work has ended, he says, and the Tories aren’t going to put up with it. Mr Cameron claims the benefits culture is partly to blame. Iain Duncan Smith gets a nod for making the Tories “the party of social justice”, but he is now beginning to wrap up.
The big argument is: “When the call comes for a politics of dignity and aspiration. to expand hope and broaden horizons, it is this Conservative party that will achieve those great and noble ends of fighting poverty, extending opportunity and, yes, repairing our broken society.”
It’s the progressive ends, Conservative means issue, stupid. Mr Cameron claims the changes needed to make the Tories “relevant” in the 21st century were made because “this party that has always believed in one nation in this century be a party of one world”. The audience for this section is most definitely the conference floor – for all the changes he’s just listed were driven by his leadership.
“We’re a changed party and we’re a united party. We’re making progress in the north, the south, the east, the west,” he says, before trumpeting Crewe and Nantwich and Boris Johnson’s mayoral win in London. “We are a united party. and we know our task is to take people with us.” “I’m a man with a plan, not a miracle cure,” he continues, calling for “character and judgment” in these times. “The character to stick to your guns and not to bottle it when things get tough. Leadership, character, judgment: that is what the country needs at a time like this and that is what the modern Conservative party offers.”
The final note is a “responsibility” towards unity – in the belief that “better times will lie ahead”. He finishes and the standing ovation begins. Samantha Cameron joins him on the stage. Clapping in time with Roxy Music’s Let’s Stick Together – does that count as an ovation?
Mr Cameron leaves the conference hall, making his final exit as lift doors close behind him. It’s over for another year – and it’s by far the best speech of the conference season.