The Secretary of State for Health sought to reach out beyond his natural base on the party's pro-European left with a speech lauding Baroness Thatcher and calling for Tories to enlarge "the scope of personal responsibility" and reinforce "the ties of nationhood".
His speech to the Tory Reform Group, usually regarded as a bastion of the Conservative left, is certain to be seen by MPs as yet another sign that several ministers are subtly repositioning themselves with an eye to a post-general election leadership contest.
Mr Dorrell combined an attempt to decouple the term "one nation" from its Tory left connotations with language which was strikingly right of centre on the need to curb social security spending and to stand up for Britain as a nation state within Europe.
Ignoring Lady Thatcher's gibe at "no-nation Conservatives" in January, Mr Dorrell entitled his speech: "Why Lady Thatcher is a one-nation Tory."
Much of it was taken up with a closely argued attack on Tony Blair for claiming Labour as the natural "one-nation" party. Mr Dorrell said that Mr Blair "sounds hollow when he talks of insecurity felt by many people in the face of changes they have faced in recent years".
He said that while it was true that "many people had been disoriented by the pace of change in recent years" it was not possible to offer "an escape from the uncertainties of life".
Mr Dorrell went on to say that insecurity was indeed a "key question in modern politics" and one the Tories were uniquely qualified to answer. He argued that personal responsibility fostered by lower taxes and higher ownership, financial stability and law and order were all key elements in ensuring individual security.
He drew a distinction between health and education - accepted as "universal services which serve the needs of the great majority of the population" - and the welfare state, which was "primarily designed to offer a safety net to those who are unable to provide for themselves".
Mr Dorrell said that the principle of universality in benefits was "not simply expensive - it is also impossible to reconcile its widespread application with the Tory commitment to enlarge personal responsibility". There were "uncomfortable questions" such as "How do we support those who cannot cope without increasing the numbers of those who choose not to cope? How do we reconcile support to the individual rejected by their own family without undermining family responsibility?"
On Europe, Mr Dorrell struck a sharply sceptical note, calling on the European Union to "re-examine the structures which have grown up in the last four decades" and declaring: "For a Conservative, Europe a la carte is not a derogation from a principle; it is an assertion of the principle of nationhood."
He added: "'One nation' is not simply a sound bite available to be licensed to any passing minstrel ... Still less is it the voice of faction - a phrase to distinguish one Conservative from another."Reuse content