David Cameron insisted the Conservatives had "changed totally" and were the 21st-century party ready to rebuild Britain's battered economy and "broken society". He bluntly rejected Gordon Brown's jibe last week that "now is no time for a novice", telling the Tory faithful: "It's not more of the same we need, but change."
He won a rapturous reception in Birmingham for a speech lasting just over an hour in which he repeatedly declared that he could provide the leadership to see the country through its financial and social challenges.
He said: "Leadership, character, judgement. That's what Britain needs at a time like this, and that's what the modern Conservative Party offers."
The financial crisis
Mr Cameron condemned governments and regulators on both sides of the Atlantic and "irresponsible" City bankers for the circumstances that led to the economic crisis. He said there "will be a day of reckoning" but pledged to work to help rebuild the economy.
He promised to restore the Bank of England's role in regulating borrowing and announced a new spending review to bear down on government borrowing to restore "sound money". He said: "The really big savings will come from reforming inefficient public services, and dealing with the long-term social problems that cause government spending to rise."
He added: "It's not experience that will bring about these long-term changes. Experience means you are implicated in the old system that's failed."
Tax and spending
The Conservative leader insisted he believes in low taxes but held out little hope of short-term tax cuts, branding Mr Brown a "spendaholic". Mr Cameron said: "I know it's your money. I know you want some of it back and I want to give some of it back to you. It's one of the reasons I'm doing this job."
But he added: "The test of whether we are ready for government is not whether we can come up with exciting shadow budgets. It is whether we have the grit and determination to impose discipline on government spending, keep our nerve and say no, even in the teeth of hostility and protest."
Labour was condemned for relying on an ever bigger state to solve society's ills. Mr Cameron lambasted Labour for "treating people like children with a total lack of trust in people's common sense and decency".
He said: "For Labour, there is only the state and the individual, nothing in between. No family to rely on, no friend to depend on, no community to call on. No neighbourhood to grow in, no faith to share in, no charities to work in. No one but the Prime Minister, nowhere but Whitehall, no such thing as society – just them, and their laws, and their rules, and their arrogance. You cannot run our country like this."
Cleaning up politics
People are "sick of sleaze, sick of the cynicism" of modern politics, Mr Cameron said as he pledged action to clean up the expenses and pay of MPs.
He highlighted the "copper-bottomed pensions, plasma screen TVs on the taxpayer, expenses and allowances that wouldn't stand for one second in the private sector". He pledged to take on "vested interests" even within his own party, insisting: "MPs voting on their own pay, open-ended final salary pension schemes, the wretched John Lewis list – they have all got to go."
Mr Cameron also turned his fire on Conservative MEPs, promising a "hard-hitting code of conduct" for those contesting next year's Euro elections.
Mr Cameron won his loudest applause as he read out the Government's response to a constituent, John Woods, whose wife died of MRSA in hospital.
He said: "A healthcare commission, a health service ombudsman, a patient advice and liaison service, an independent complaints advocacy service. Four ways to make a complaint but not one way for Mr Woods' wife to die with dignity. God, we have to change all that."
He declared: "I'm afraid Labour have had their chance to show they can be trusted with the NHS and they have blown it. We are the party of the NHS in Britain today and under my leadership that is how it's going to stay."
The Tory leader cited the "barbaric violence on our streets" and the "harsh culture of incivility" as he repeated his claim that Britain is "broken". He said tougher sentences and more jails was part of the answer. But he echoed Tony Blair as he warned: "Too often, state intervention deals with the symptoms, not the causes. I want us to be different – to deal with the long-term causes."
Mr Cameron spoke of his "personal and political" passion over the need to drive up classroom standards. He said a Tory government would establish 1,000 academies with real freedoms and pledged: "We will break open the state monopoly and allow new schools to be set up."
Promising to bring an end to the "something for nothing culture", he warned benefits claimants: "If you don't take a reasonable offer of a job, you lose benefits. Go on doing it, you'll keep losing benefits. Stay on benefits and you'll have to work for them."
Mr Cameron – whose speech was preceded by a film about British operations in Afghanistan – warned: "If we fail in our mission, the Taliban will come back... and the terrorist training camps [will] come back. That would mean more terrorists... and more slaughter on our streets." He protested that British troops were being sent into combat with sub-standard equipment and treated like "second-class citizens" at home.
Talking points: Mentions in speech
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