MANY conservatives are sceptical of David Cameron’s “modernisation” of the party. It’s easy to forget, but back in 2007, the modernisers told colleagues that the economics was settled and the party should instead focus on other issues, like green energy and international development. The party leadership agreed to match Gordon Brown’s spending plans, and shunned its previous commitment to lower taxes. We’d all “share in the proceeds of growth.”
This jettisoning of economics, alongside a commitment to occupy a mythical centre ground, led to a lack of clarity about what the Conservative party stood for, particularly in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Previous pronouncements meant that the need for big cuts to government spending had to be couched as a necessity rather than being desirable for long-term economic health. There wasn’t a positive vision to sell to the electorate.
Yesterday’s speech, in many ways, saw Cameron reaffirm his modernising credentials. There was little mention of Europe, immigration or crime. Cameron justified his commitment to traditionally non-conservative priorities like the NHS and international aid spending. And yet, the sense from the hall was that the speech was unifying the party and cementing Cameron’s position to lead it. It’s worth considering why.
Of all the speeches I’ve heard Cameron make in recent years, this was the first with an authentically conservative narrative. It shunned the centre ground and embraced what Sir Keith Joseph, the Centre for Policy Studies’ founder, dubbed the “common ground”. It explained for the first time why a smaller state is necessary for a big society and extolled principles shared by the aspirational classes.
But at heart these were conservative messages. That a successful economy requires us to be competitive and open, with a lean public sector. That aspiration and innovation drives prosperity. That welfare can’t solve poverty, and dependence diminishes us as individuals. That “fairness” shouldn’t be judged by outcomes but by the payoffs for doing the right thing. That the state doesn’t have its own money. That rigorous education should be available to all. That individual responsibility is empowering.
For the first time, Cameron found a narrative that allowed him to simultaneously attack Labour from the right while retaining broad appeal. Fiscal responsibility, enterprise, welfare reform and high education standards to counter Labour’s insatiable appetite for state solutions, envy politics, and protecting vested interests within the public sector.
The argument was authentic, compassionate and human; yet ideological and robust. It painted a daunting picture if we fail to meet the challenges, but a positive vision if we succeed.
Having explained where he wants to take us, the task for Cameron is to now show us that he is the man to start getting us there by 2015.
Ryan Bourne is head of economic research at the Centre for Policy Studies.