By Tim Montgomerie
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Speeches don't matter very much. They don't move public opinion in the way that those of us in the political bubble sometimes give the impression of believing. The speech was significant nonetheless. Not because it will win many votes in the short-term but because the Prime Minister attempted to explain why the tough-minded policies of this period of austerity are not inconsistent with his vision of modern compassionate conservatism.
Cameron painted a vision of a country where the good life isn't defined by an ever bigger state or where generosity is defined by how much a person pays in taxes or by the extent to which people are allowed to live free of responsibility. Mr Cameron argued that the good society was built on education and work. By talking about his own father in such a moving way the Prime Minister made it clear that he believes that the family is the best values-generating institution that mankind knows.
This is very important territory for Conservatives. We can say we're cutting the deficit because we want to appease international financial markets or we can explain that our public services will be in grave peril if we don't start to balance the books. We can say we are reforming welfare because we are angry at "scroungers" or we can present work as better for people – better financially and better morally. We can define our conservatism in the language of accountants or of crusaders for a better society.
Cameron delighted Conference by reaffirming a quite familar Tory narrative of aspiration. In my favourite line of the speech he explained that we're not the party of the better off but the party of the people who want to be better off. We are the party of the strivers – people striving for something bigger and better for themselves and their families. But Mr Cameron also dedicated significant sections of his speech to the NHS, overseas aid and the status of people with disabilities. It was not, therefore, just a speech about the people getting on in life – Tories have always enjoyed and celebrated rags-to-riches stories. This was also a speech about social solidarity – about standing alongside people in poor health, suffering from disabilities and, overseas, hungry and perhaps vulnerable to disease. It was a reaffirmation of what might be called Britain's social contract.
Cameron's was a one nation speech without him endlessly repeating that phrase. The PM said he stood for everyone in Britain – "North or South, black or white, straight or gay". This was a big and open-armed conservatism. It's a lot like the StrongAndCompassionate.com Conservatism that ConHome launched at the weekend. Cameron is addressing the real challenge facing the party – there's no longer the heavy emphasis on the environment of early Cameron or on the important but electorally ineffective idea of the Big Society. Cameron is rebuilding his modern compassionate conservatism around the two great successes of his government – Gove's education reforms and Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms. We now have the big divide in British politics. The Conservatives are the party that will stand against the public sector interests and ensure Britain lives within its means. We'll stand against the teacher unions who oppose choice in education and rigour in exams. We'll stand against the something-for-nothing society and in favour of a society where work is rewarded and honoured. Labour has only "one notion" by way of response – more borrowing. Cameron's speech is interesting because he's finally making an argument that makes sense.