During the train journey home after last year’s Tory Conference, I asked myself a question that an editor of this site should perhaps not need to ask himself: why vote Conservative? Why should I vote for David Cameron’s party in the General Election then coming in less than six months?
On reflection, it is no bad thing to have to justify, every now and again, prejudices that one comes to take for granted. And the answer came easily enough. The Government’s many flaws were more than made up for by a success. Committed Ministers were delivering serious reform: Michael Gove’s academies programme and exam change; Iain Duncan Smith’s work-focused changes to the welfare system; Theresa May’s policing overhaul, reworking of stop and search, and crackdown on human trafficking; Chris Grayling’s prison rehabilitation programme; the Francis Maude remodelling of Whitehall; Jeremy Hunt’s transparency and accountability implementations at health. This was Grown-Up Government.
These achievements were sometimes as much managed despite Downing Street than because of it (driven through by determined Ministers and dedicated SpAds) but it was David Cameron’s Government, and he was thus entitled to much of the credit – not least in first appointing his team and then giving them their heads. His speech today held out the prospect of more of the same: more homes for ownership; more free schools; education in prison; worked-based social reform; the Northern Powerhouse and devolution. Perhaps the main differences between this conference speech and his others, comprehensively assessed earlier today on this site by Peter Hoskin, is that he now leads a Conservative-majority Government and that the Labour Party is lead by Jeremy Corbyn.
Hence the stress on “equality”: if the debate about the Party’s strategic direction can be crudely characterised by “moving to the Right” or “moving to the Centre”, there can be no doubt about Cameron’s answer. But much of the speech, with its focus on social reform, was founded on the great tradition of progressive Tory change stretching from Disraeli through Macmillan to Thatcher. This work is the best possible answer to the Conservative “Party of the Rich” problem, though it may take the next generation of Tory leadership – the Ruth Davidsons and Robert Halfons and Stephen Crabbs – to give it the projection that can cut through to the electorate. Cameron has also given real leadership on combatting extremism – wrenching government policy in the right direction, as part of his speech today reminded us.
There were weaknesses. He said nothing of any substance about Europe. He held the line on refugees, praised the way in which British aid is saving lives in the war-ravaged Middle East, but failed to back up the speech made by the Home Secretary yesterday. Above all, the contrast between his first address to a Conservative Conference and this one shone out. That speech was concentrated on the indispensability of ending the structural deficit. Today, it is reduced, but not eliminated. Britain may be less exposed to downturn or recession than the Eurozone, but we are still spending more than we can afford, with spending on the richer retired elderly effectively ring-fenced while that on poorer working people is not: hence the growing row about tax credits.
This leaves the Government pushing social justice forward with one hand while holding it back with the other. But while most Ministers have little sway over these key strategic decisions, most of them now have the chance to work away at delivering those public service reforms, that Grown-Up Government, with no Liberal Democrats and, therefore, more freedom. This felt less like a triumphalist conference than a governmental one, in which minds have moved on from last May. Outside, anarchists abused, spat at and punched delegates. (Why weren’t there more arrests?) Inside, the mood was calm. I was struck by how civil and constructive the discussion on the EU at ConHome’s own fringe meeting with Steve Baker was yesterday afternoon.
George Osborne looked more like a co-Prime Minister than ever, Theresa May threw caution to the wind, and Boris Johnson showed that he can never be written off. But before that leadership election must come the referendum. And that deficit is still there.