David Cameron: a pitch to the centre for country, party.... and himself

One question has dominated talk within the Conservative Party, and the media surrounding it, since the General Election: with a majority Government, and now with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, will the Conservatives use the opportunity to move to the centre-ground, or lurch to the right?

The answer was unequivocal from the Prime Minister’s speech today – he has planted the Party he leads slap bang in the middle.

David Cameron used today’s speech to speak of the 2010s as a “turnaround decade” for the country – yet that reveals only half of his true motivation. The Prime Minister sees this decade as a unique opportunity for his Party to dominate the mainstream of British politics for years to come through focusing on “social reform”, on issues such as rehabilitation, social mobility, fighting inequality and social care.

This is not, actually, new. Parking the “Compassionate Conservatism” he outlined in 2005 during the last Parliament in the bid for economic security, whilst simultaneously hamstrung by the Liberal Democrats, he is known to have considered a number of issues as “second term” priorities. He now has the room to implement these in full.

Perhaps even more powerful was the implied fixation with legacy. Yes, for the country, and, yes, for the party, but also, just as importantly, for David Cameron the individual. This speech will have left no one in any doubt about the kind of Britain he want to see by the time he leaves office.

This conference has been dominated, until today, by speculation around the individuals likely to stand in the next leadership election. Whilst that will not go away, Cameron’s speech has reasserted his authority for the next few years, and displayed his passion and enthusiasm for staying on up to 2019/2020. The Prime Minister knew he needed to give his party a reason for them to want him to stay – and his vision for the future, together with a call to action, had delegates on their feet more times than ever in living memory. His specific mentions of George Osborne and Boris Johnson should be seen as a deliberate snub to Theresa May who, from her speech to the conference yesterday, seeks to take the party in a direction to which David Cameron is vehemently opposed and which is completely out of step with his political and electoral strategy. His policy announcements on four new Trident submarines, together with action on closing down extremism in religious environments, also played well to the party faithful.

His main announcement, as briefed overnight, was on housing and the need to get more homes built. For all the Prime Minister’s stated concerns, he and the party knows this is something they have failed to act on over the last five years, despite the rhetoric. The Localism agenda and the National Planning Policy Framework was supposed to get Britain building the 250,000 homes it needs each year, yet latest figures suggest the country is not even halfway there. Indeed, another call for planning to be reformed will not go down well with a significant section of his party MPs who were calling for more to be done four years ago.

Cameron finished his remarks by describing this decade as “the time when the tide turned” and is banking on that message ringing true for the country and party. Deliberately contrasting his message with that from the Labour party, and in many places launching direct attacks on the Labour leadership, his attempts to drag his party to the centreground seem to be working. The main question now is whether the right-wing, and Theresa May as the focal point, will allow him to continue in this manner.

Manchester has been busy, with fringe events packed out and standing room only. At the beginning of a five-year Parliament, companies are seeking to gauge what is being said, and delegates are enthused by the fact that government policy, not opposition manifestos, are at stake in the debates.  The procession of Conservative Ministers at the Business Day at Conference shows the party still intends to be the party of business. But, in terms of advocating, perhaps the most intriguing development has not come from this conference, but from the result back in May. MPs have spoken this week, in private, about the increased influence they now yield. Where once they would present themselves to the Whips office with an issue they were concerned about and expect to receive short shrift, they are now promised a Ministerial meeting within a matter of days. It presents a useful vehicle and opportunity for grassroots campaigning – a different kind of localism, one might say.

On the basis of this speech he may have bought himself, and his potential successor, a significant amount of time to complete the job.

Simon Richards, Account Manager, Public Affairs