David Cameron staked his claim to be prime minister yesterday, urging voters to trust him to administer the painful medicine needed to cure the debt crisis as he spelt out his vision of a compassionate, one-nation, Conservative Britain.
“You can never prove you’re ready for everything that will come your way as prime minister,” he told the Tory conference in Manchester. Admitting that government was dominated by “unpredictable events”, he argued: “It’s your character, your temperament and your judgement that count so much more than your policies and your manifesto.”
In effect, he asked people to place their personal trust in him even if they still have doubts about his party.
The Tory leader ended the last party conference season before a general election by tackling head-on Labour claims that he is too inexperienced and that his privileged background makes him remote from ordinary people. His 57-minute speech was sober, highly personal and, unusually, included no new policy announcements.
The Eton-educated Tory leader said: “I know how lucky I’ve been to have the chances I had… I want every child to have the chances that I had.”
His two recurring themes were that Labour’s “big government” had failed and that the Tories would usher in a new, responsible society. He summed up what a Conservative Government would stand for as: “If you take responsibility, we will reward you and if you cannot, we will look after you.”
Pledging to put Britain back on its feet, Mr Cameron admitted the spending cuts outlined by the shadow Chancellor George Osborne would be tough.
But his optimistic vision of post-recession Britain echoed Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech: “I see a country where more children grow up with security and love because family life comes first… where you choose the most important things in life – the school your child goes to and the healthcare you get… where communities govern themselves – organising local services, independent of Whitehall, a great handing back of power to people.
“I see a country with entrepreneurs everywhere, bringing their ideas to life – and life to our great towns and cities… where it’s not just about the quantity of money, but the quality of life – where we lead the world in saving our planet… where you’re not so afraid to walk home alone, where you’re safe in the knowledge that right and wrong is restored to law and order.
“I see a country where the poorest children go to the best schools not the worst, where birth is never a barrier. No, we will not make it if we pull in different directions, follow our own interests, take care of only ourselves.”
Mr Cameron argued that “big government” had left people powerless and made Britain’s social problems worse by undermining personal and social responsibility.
In a powerful attack on Labour, he asked: “Who made the poorest poorer? Who left youth unemployment higher? Who made inequality greater? No, not the wicked Tories… you, Labour. So don’t you dare lecture us about poverty. You have failed and it falls to us, the modern Conservative Party to fight for the poorest in our country today.”
Mr Cameron challenged Labour to explain what was progressive and compassionate about spending more on debt interest than lifting children out of poverty: “The progressive thing to do, the responsible thing to do, is to get a grip on the debt, but in a way that brings the country together, not drives it apart.”
He announced that Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, will spearhead the Tories’ drive to repair the “broken society” by chairing a Cabinet committee if the party wins power. He may take a seat in the House of Lords but it is not clear whether he will become a minister.
Mr Cameron’s smaller government pledge drew an important election dividing line. Labour is bound to accuse the Tories of using the economic crisis as an excuse to revert to Thatcherism, roll back the state’s frontiers and leave vulnerable people to sink or swim.
However, the Tory leader countered: “I have some simple beliefs. That there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state. That politics is about ‘we,’ not about ‘me’. Above all, the importance of family… This is my DNA: family, community, country. That is what made me. These are the things I care about. They are what I’m in public service to protect, promote and defend.”
He spoke movingly about the death of his disabled son Ivan and the strong support he receives from his wife Samantha. “When such a big part of your life suddenly ends, nothing else – nothing outside – matters at all. It’s like the world stops turning and the clocks stop ticking… I know what sustains me the most. She is sitting in the front row and I’m incredibly proud to call her my wife.”
Mr Cameron said: “My family owes so much to the National Health Service… So we will never change the idea that at the heart of our NHS, that healthcare in this country is free at the point of use and available to everyone, based on need, not ability to pay.”
On Afghanistan, he said: “We need a strategy that is credible, and do-able. We are not in Afghanistan to deliver the perfect society, We are there to stop the re-establishment of terrorist training camps.” He promised a Tory Government would have a “ruthless, relentless focus on fighting, winning and [British troops] coming home”.
Liam Byrne, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, described it as “an emotive but deceptive speech”. He claimed: “This was a traditional Conservative speech: it was not a speech of change. The two faces of the Conservative Party are increasingly on show.”
What he said: And what he meant
"We all know how bad things are – massive debt, social breakdown, political disenchantment – but what I want to talk about today is how good things could be"
We all know Brown is still Prime Minister, but in seven months it could be me!
"Why is our society broken? Because government got too big, did too much and undermined responsibility"
So when I say we are cutting inheritance tax and hope to abolish the 50p tax rate, don't think of it as stuffing the pockets of the rich; think of it as helping the feckless poor to be responsible.
"This year, here in Manchester, [we have had] our most successful, dynamic conference for 20 years"
Forget John Major and all the years in between, these are the glory days of Margaret Thatcher all over again. We're the winning side.
"I tell you, when you're carrying a child in your arms to accident and emergency in the middle of the night and don't have to reach for your wallet, it's a lot better than the alternative"
Daniel Hannan, who said the NHS "made people iller", may be a Tory MEP, but he's nothing to do with me.
"I have simple beliefs: that there is such a thing as society. It's just not the same thing as the state"
But don't let the public think the Thatcher years are coming back. Her statement that "there is no such thing as society" was a giveaway. No more of that talk.
"Excuse me. Who made the poorest poorer? Who left youth unemployment higher? Who made inequality greater?"
Don't say Margaret Thatcher
"It will be a steep climb, but the view from the summit will be worth it"
The election will be a slog but I'm going to love being PM [he even said so twice].
"And when we look back we will say not that the Government made it happen – you made it happen"
And if it didn't happen, we'll blame you.
Floating voters in marginal seats
Alan Phillips Semi-retired charity director, 62, Hove
Professional, but not passionate. Good prominence to ending ID cards, but I wanted him to address the economic crisis more – and to imply Brown was responsible was disingenuous. But he came across as prime ministerial, and handled the allusion to his son's death well.
Michael Wager Customer services consultant, 25, Cheltenham
When he brought out the Shadow Cabinet it was a succession of ample-girthed, middle-aged men – I can't say I was convinced. His speech was decent; a little light on detail, but I am more receptive to what he has to say now than I was before.
Ashvath Kumar Graphic design student, 22, Finchley, North London
I didn't see anything from Cameron I hadn't seen before in Tony Blair. Labour have been in office for some time and are more likely to be able to extract us from this mess.
Kay Wilkinson Mother of two, 34, Colne, Lancashire
I don't follow politics but I found the speech clear and accessible. I warmed to him, especially when he spoke about his son, although it was a bit like selling your family. You can't help but be drawn in by Cameron's enthusiasm, but I have an in-built dislike of the Conservatives.
Lisa Bradley Mother of two, 40, Ilkley, West Yorkshire
I like the family, country and community message. As someone who is married to a successful entrepreneur I know how hard they work and what risks they take. I wanted to hear more about how he plans to help the developing world. I want change and he's a good front man.
Margie Arts Retired lollipop lady, 67, Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria
I'm pleased he will link pensions to average earnings, and to hear he will increase health visitors. And I applaud the social structure he described. Eight out of 10... but I'm still not going to give him my vote.