A COMBATIVE David Cameron used his conference speech yesterday to try to reboot his renewal of the Conservative brand and boost his chances of a second term in office after his party’s toughest spell in government since the 2010 general election.
In a 50-minute address –which saw his voice break as he recalled his late son Ivan – Mr Cameron returned once again to the issue of the Tories’ image, as he warned the party was still allowing opponents to caricature it as “cartoon Conservatives who don’t care”.
In a speech that combined the modernising and traditional elements of the party, with a pitch both for head and heart, Mr Cameron laid claim to the Tories being the party that could tackle poverty and injustice.
It was, he said, the party’s “moral” mission to create an “aspiration nation”, committed to controversial policies on the economy, welfare and education.
With Labour leader Ed Miliband’s “One Nation” speech of a week earlier having sought to steal Conservative clothes, Mr Cameron made a clear bid to remain anchored in the centre ground, boasting of his pledges to maintain spending on the NHS and foreign aid.
But there was no mistaking that the thrust of his speech – an appeal that modern centre-right values could help reinvigorate an ailing western world – put clear blue water between him and Labour.
It was also a speech that entirely ignored Mr Cameron’s coalition allies, the Liberal Democrats, offering further evidence of the return of a two-party battle at the heart of British politics.
Challenging Labour’s record on social mobility and poverty, Mr Cameron insisted: “I’m not here to defend privilege, I’m here to spread it.”
Mr Cameron acknowledged that the party’s “problem” was that it didn’t “bang on” enough about its motivation.
“It’s not enough to know our ideas are right,” he said. “We’ve got to explain why they are compassionate”.
The speech comes seven years after Mr Cameron first made his bid for the leadership with an overt call for the party to show it was compatible with modern times.
However, Labour and the SNP last night said it was Conservative policies that were damaging the party’s image, with the Nationalists describing Mr Cameron’s speech as a “party political broadcast for independence”.
The Tory leader’s speech came amid increasing speculation that his chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, may be forced to resign in the coming days after insulting police officers guarding Downing Street.
Party chiefs have warned that the episode has set back Mr Cameron’s modernising agenda “by a decade”.
The Prime Minister was also under pressure to respond to Labour leader Mr Miliband’s speech last week.
Speaking from behind a lectern, Mr Cameron said he wanted to use his speech to set out a “serious argument” about how best to ensure Britain did not fall behind fast-developing nations across the world.
He said the Olympics had provided Britain with evidence it could still achieve “big things”.
Referring to his late son Ivan, he said he had always suspected “people saw the wheelchair, not the boy”. With his voice breaking, he said the Paralympics had ensured that, today, “more people would see the boy and not the wheelchair”.
Turning to the global picture, he said the problem with “old powers… on the slide” was that they were “fat, sclerotic, over-regulated”, spending too much money on “unaffordable welfare systems, huge pension bills and unreformed public services”.
He said his job was to ensure Britain did not join them.
“My job – our job – is to make sure that in this 21st century, as in the centuries that came before, our country, Britain, is on the rise.”
The aim, he said, was to build an “aspiration nation”.
He went on: “For us Conservatives, this is not just an economic mission – it’s also a moral one.” And seeking to counter Mr Miliband’s attack on “out-of-touch” Conservatives last week, he insisted: “We don’t preach about one nation but practise class war. We just get behind people who want to get on in life.”
The party’s problem, however, remained its image, he said, adding that while the Conservatives had a heart, “we don’t like wearing it on our sleeve”. This, he said, “leaves space for others to twist our deeds and distort who we are”.
“My mission from the day I became leader was to change that,” he said. “Yes, to show the Conservative Party is for everyone: north or south, black or white, straight or gay.
“That Conservative methods are not just good for the strong and the successful but the best way to help the poor, and the weak, and the vulnerable.”
He repeated Chancellor George Osborne’s defence of the government’s economic strategy, saying he wanted to tackle Britain’s “yes-but-no” culture, which supported free enterprise in principle, but threw planning objections in the way of success.
And on welfare, he borrowed the language of Sir William Beveridge, architect of the welfare state, to warn that modern-day “evils” of unfairness and injustice skewed the benefits system.
He said the messages sent out by the system that deterred people from finding a job were “crazy”.
Staring aggressively at the camera, he insisted it was the Conservatives, not Labour, “who are the real champions of fighting poverty in Britain today”.
His opponents, he said, had allowed a “toxic culture of low expectations” to hold the country back.
He added: “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 right. I went to a great school and I want every child to have a great education’.”
However, opponents last night seized on Mr Cameron’s aggressive style.
Michael Dugher MP, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister, said: “This was a defensive speech, from an out-of-touch, clearly rattled leader.
“David Cameron never once mentioned the double-dip recession or the one million young people out of work. His speech failed to set out the real change our economy needs.”
Scotland’s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “This appallingly complacent speech – 24 hours after the IMF downgraded its forecast for the UK economy to a contraction of 0.4 per cent – was a party political broadcast of the need for an independent Scotland.
“Yet again, David Cameron rejected increasing capital investment to get the economy moving and boost employment, demonstrating the urgent requirement for the Scottish Parliament to gain the job-creating powers of independence.”
But CBI director-general John Cridland welcomed the speech and said: “The Prime Minister’s vision of an ‘aspiration nation’ will appeal to entrepreneurs across the country.
“It was also important that he put the competitiveness challenge at the heart of his speech as it is the reality facing UK businesses striving to win orders, and to create jobs and growth.
“There is no doubt that an ability to seize opportunities in growth markets will be the foundation of UK success.”