Cameron stakes his claim

By Ian Dunt

David Cameron staked his claim to become the next prime minister of Great Britain today, as he delivered the most important speech of his political career at the Tory party conference in Manchester.

In an intensely personal opening, Mr Cameron evoked the memory of his son, Ivan, who died this year.

“For me and Samantha this year will only ever mean one thing,” he said.

“When such a big part of your life suddenly ends nothing else – nothing outside – matters. It’s like the world has stopped turning and the clocks have stopped ticking.

“And as they slowly start again, weeks later, you ask yourself all over again: do I really want to do this? You think about what you really believe and what sustains you.”

Mr Cameron then went on to describe his belief system.

“I am not a complicated person,” he said.

“I love this country and the things it stands for.”

He used his personal experiences to assure the country the Tories could be trusted with the NHS.

“My family owes so much to the National Health Service,” he said.

“No, it is not perfect. But I tell you, when you’re carrying a child in your arms to Accident and Emergency in the middle of the night and don’t have to reach for your wallet it’s a lot better than the alternative.

“So we will never change the idea at the heart of our NHS, that healthcare in this country is free at the point of use and available to everyone based on need, not ability to pay.”

The Tory leader defined the difference between Labour and the Conservatives as a philosophical battle over the role of government.

“Here is the big argument in British politics today, put plainly and simply,” he told the audience.

“Labour say that to solve the country’s problems, we need more government.

“Don’t they see? It is more government that got us into this mess.”

“We are not going to solve our problems with bigger government. We are going to solve our problems with a stronger society.”

Mr Cameron even went on to argue that the size of the state was leading to the breakdown of the criminal justice system.

“Every part of it, the police, the prosecution services, the prisons is failing under the weight of big government targets and bureaucracy,” Mr Cameron stressed.

He then launched an impassioned attack on the Keynesian economists who suggest now is not the time to reduce public spending in case it lengthens the recession.

“The longer we wait for a credible plan, the bigger the bill for our children to pay,” he said.

“The longer we wait, the greater the risk to the recovery. The longer we wait, the higher the chance we return to recession.

“Here’s the most obvious reason we can’t wait. The more we wait, the more we waste on the interest we’re paying on this debt.”

He berated Labour failing to help the poor, and made another attempt to establish the Conservatives as the party for the less well-off.

“Who made the poorest poorer? Who left youth unemployment higher? Who made inequality greater?” Mr Cameron asked.

“No, not the wicked Tories. You, Labour: you’re the ones that did this to our society.

“So don’t you dare lecture us about poverty. You have failed and it falls to us, the modern Conservative party to fight for the poorest who you have let down.”

The speech touched on Europe, which plagued the start of the conference early this week, after the Irish yes vote to the Lisbon treaty.

Mr Cameron reiterated his pledge for a referendum, but did not specify if he had changed his mind on whether it would be wise to hold one once the treaty is set in stone.

“For the past few decades, something strange has been happening on the left of British politics,” he said.

“People who think of themselves as progressives have fallen in love with an institution that no one elects, no one can remove, and that hasn’t signed off its accounts for over a decade.

“Let’s return to democratic and accountable politics the powers the EU shouldn’t have.”

Mr Cameron made some effort at the end of the speech to summarise the Conservative vision of Britain.

“We will reward those who take responsibility, and care for those who can’t,” he said.

The phrase has strong echoes of Tony Blair’s ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ phrase, and both attempt to unite left and right wing sentiments into a coherent core.

Labour reacted cautiously to the speech, describing it as “emotive but deceptive”.

Liam Byrne MP, Labour’s chief secretary to the Treasury, said: “It concealed the judgement calls he has consistently got wrong and the real threat of what he would do.

“This was a traditional Conservative speech: it was not a speech of change. The two faces of the Conservative Party are increasingly on show.”

The Liberal Democrats said his economic suggestions would prolong the recession.

“They claim they can fix the country’s finances, but their plans are economically illiterate,” said Danny Alexander, chief of staff to Nick Clegg.

“Cutting spending now would plunge us back into recession. “They claim to care about the poorest, but will only slash taxes for millionaires.”

The speech is the last major event of the Tory party conference in Manchester, which has seen a problematic and eventful week for the leader of the opposition.

Mr Cameron’s fortunes appeared to be uncharacteristically depressing at the start of the week, as debate over the Irish yes vote on the Lisbon treaty threatened to derail the conference altogether.

Eurosceptics in the party wanted Mr Cameron to pledge a referendum on the treaty regardless of whether it had been ratified by all EU member states when he enters government – assuming he wins the next general election, expected in May 2010.

Mr Cameron refused to bow to those demands, but media attention was quickly distracted by a pivotal conference speech from shadow chancellor George Osborne, who outlined, in surprising detail, the cuts a Conservative government would impose to reduce the public debt.

The speech fascinated political pundits. By specifying precisely which cuts he would impose before voting day commentators were unsure whether the tactic would backfire.

But problems returned yesterday when what should have been a positive announcement by Mr Cameron – that he had secured General Richard Dannatt as an advisor in the House of Lords – turned into an embarrassment.

Asked how he felt about the idea, shadow home secretary Chris Grayling – clearly out of the loop – misheard the question and assumed the reporter was referring to an appointment by the government.

He promptly dismissed the move as a publicity stunt by Gordon Brown, much to the embarrassment of Tory officials.