Attempting to allay fears that he is out of touch with ordinary people, David Cameron trumpeted his credentials as a "one-nation Conservative" and said the "spirit of Britain" would see the nation through its current debt crisis.
In his closing speech to the Tory conference in Manchester, the Prime Minister also promised to tear up the rules which restrict the number of children being adopted; urged private schools to sponsor and set up academy schools for state-educated pupils, and extolled the virtues of gay marriage and Britain's overseas aid spending.
But his drive to tackle the perception that the Tories are "for the rich" suffered a setback when he had to rewrite a section of his speech which implied he would urge people to pay off their store card and credit card debts. That raised eyebrows because such action would dampen consumer spending and could plunge Britain back into recession. It also risked making Mr Cameron look dangerously out of touch with families struggling to survive the squeeze on household budgets – undermining a key aim of his speech.
Cameron aides claimed some journalists had "wilfully misrepresented" draft sections of the address released to yesterday's newspapers. But Treasury sources complained of "a briefing too far" by Mr Cameron's team.
The pre-released section of the speech said the debt crisis "means households – all of us – paying off the credit card and store card bills". In his actual speech he said "that's why households are paying down their credit and store card bills".
Mr Cameron acknowledged the debt crisis was now "as serious as it was in 2008 when world recession loomed". But, in a delicate balancing act, he erred on the side of optimism. Recalling that Britain had fought back when it lost an empire and was seen as the sick man of Europe, he declared: "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog... Let's turn this time of challenge into a time of opportunity."
He told the public: "I know how tough things are. I don't for one minute underestimate how worried people feel, whether about making ends meet or the state of the world economy. But the truth is, right now we need to be energised, not paralysed by gloom and fear." He added: "Frankly there's too much 'can't-do' sogginess around. We need a sharp, focused, 'can-do' country".
Vowing to build a "new economy" in which no one was left behind, the Prime Minister argued that the Government's cuts programme would mean the richest would bear the biggest burden. "This is a one-nation deficit plan from a one-nation party," he said. He promised that, under him, the Tories would always remain "the party of the NHS" and pledged to sweep away an education culture that too often made excuses for failure. "I am disgusted by the idea that we should aim for any less for a child from a poor background than a rich one," he said. "I have contempt for the notion that we should accept narrower horizons for a black child than a white one."
The Eton-educated Mr Cameron appealed to private schools to show "social responsibility" by starting and sponsoring academy schools in the state sector.
He attacked restrictive adoption rules that left 65,000 children in care, including 3,660 under the age of one. "We've got people flying all over the world to adopt babies, while the care system at home agonises about placing black children with white families," he said. New rules will make it easier for families to adopt a child from a different race and for older couples to adopt.
He said plans to legalise gay marriage were about commitment as well as equality. "I don't support gay marriage in spite of being a Conservative; I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative," he said.
There was a tough side to the speech too. He signalled that the Government's "growth strategy" to be unveiled next month would include further curbs on workers' rights in order to cut business costs. It will also include plans to boost housebuilding and home ownership after Mr Cameron promised to "inspire a new Tory housing revolution" to match Margaret Thatcher's.
With the economic storm clouds overshadowing the speech, there was only a passing reference to Mr Cameron's flagship "Big Society" project. But he did announce plans to treble to 90,000 the number of 16-year-olds who will do "national citizen's service" by 2014.Reuse content