Politics is a serious business – but it’s about friendship too. I’ve been a member of the Conservative Party for 25 years – and along the way I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with thousands upon thousands of our members.

It’s been quite a journey. As an ordinary member of a London ward in my twenties, I pounded the pavements with dozens of other volunteers to get our candidates elected to the council. As a fresh-faced young man at Central Office – as it was then – I worked insanely hard with my colleagues to keep Labour out of power. I’ve been an unsuccessful parliamentary candidate, where the bitter pill of defeat was sweetened only by the kind words of those who fought with me. For well over a decade I’ve had the honour of being the MP for Witney, helped every step of the way by an army of door knockers, tea makers, canvassers and many more besides. And of course as Leader of the party, I’ve travelled across the country to talk to activists young and old.

This isn’t a working relationship – it’s a friendship based on common Conservative values. These aren’t principles drawn from some dense political theory – they’re the things we teach our children: work hard, stand on your own two feet if you can, help those who can’t help themselves, family comes first, have pride in your country. These are the values that drove us into politics and they’re the values that for years we’ve fought for together.

This week we’re coming together in Manchester for our party conference. And it really will be like a meeting of old friends.

We’ll share memories of times gone by as we celebrate the life of Margaret Thatcher. Throughout the week there’ll be tributes to mark her legacy. There can surely be no more appropriate place to do this than a Conservative conference. For years Margaret Thatcher came into the conference hall and inspired us to press ahead with the task of turning our country around. We all remember those great lines: “You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning”; “The only way we can achieve great things for Britain is by asking great things of Britain”; “Socialism can’t be improved – it has to be removed”. And we also remember how, just hours after terrorists tried to kill her with the Brighton bomb, she gave a defiant closing speech exactly as planned. This week we will do her proud.

We’ll celebrate the loyalty that comes with friendship. Every year when I come to conference, I can always count on a number of things happening. As day follows night, I’ll incur the wrath of Samantha by setting the alarm for 4am as I head off on a tour of the breakfast studios. Then as night follows day, I’ll drive my staff to the brink of insanity as I tinker – and tinker again – with the big speech into the early hours. But above all there is one thing that I can always count on – that I’ll never cease to be humbled by the dedication and dependability of our party’s membership.

Every Conservative MP has a story about an activist who’s gone the extra mile for the party. That’s certainly true in my constituency in Witney: Marion Dowding who first joined the local party in 1974 when Douglas Hurd was a young backbencher, working tirelessly ever since; Edwyn Stobart who for years has walked the lanes of Oxfordshire delivering leaflets and knocking up voters; Joe Walcott who came from Jamaica to serve Britain during the war, and in the years after served our constituency as a mayor and loyal party member. We are built on people like this – men and women who juggle a hundred other commitments to do their duty for party and country. What’s more, many of you are now involved in bringing in new blood through our Team 2015 project. I am deeply grateful for it – and at conference I’ll have the chance to thank you for it.

And we’ll look to the future – of all there is still to do together. Our mission is clear – to turn this country around and give all our people the best chance of success. This is what Conservatives have done throughout the generations. We don’t just fix the mess left behind by the previous Labour government, we build something better for the years to come.

Right now we are engaged in nothing less than a battle for Britain’s future. We’re putting our values into practice and building a Britain for hardworking people. We’re building an economy that rewards aspiration and entrepreneurship – creating the good, well-paid jobs that people need. We’re fixing welfare – making sure that it always pays to work and that no one is condemned to a life on benefits. We’re sorting out our schools – demanding that no child is written off because of their background. And of course we’re sorting out our debts – so our children don’t have to pay for the mistakes of yesterday. Step by step, inch by inch, we’re getting there: 1.4 million new private sector jobs, the deficit down by a third, 300,000 new small businesses, benefits capped, tough, rigorous subjects back in our schools. Over the next few days you’ll hear more about this progress and, of course, have your say in a busy programme of debates.

So let’s have a fantastic conference. Let’s remind everyone why this is the greatest political party on earth, the most successful in the history of Western democracy. Above all, we’re a team – friends – working together in the common endeavour of turning around the country we love. Welcome to Manchester and enjoy the week.