It failed to enthuse the public at the general election and Tory party workers admit it "bombed" on the doorstep. But yesterday David Cameron attempted to explain again his vision of a "big society" as he prepared the country for the pain of spending cuts in his first speech to the Conservative Party conference as Prime Minister. He suggested that the sacrifices needed to cut the £155 bn deficit would be rewarded with tax cuts before the next election.
Invoking a wartime spirit, Mr Cameron called for a new partnership between government and people that would define the "big society" and made clear its principles would run through all the Government's policies.
His call for a people power "revolution" that would change Britain forever closed a Tory conference dominated by George Osborne's dramatic announcement that child benefit will be withdrawn from the 1.2m families with a top-rate taxpayer in 2013.
Ministers believe the Tory leadership underestimated the backlash the cut would cause among MPs and party activists worried about alienating the party's natural middle-class supporters. Some ministers are privately fuming that they were not told in advance about the landmark announcement even though two Lib Dems – Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, the Chief Treasury Secretary – agreed the move with Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne some weeks ago. Mr Clegg, who does not draw child benefit for his three children, was told last weekend that the announcement would be made on Monday. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, declined to say when she knew about it –and even whether she knew in advance.
Yesterday's 52-minute speech was the product of an intense debate inside Mr Cameron's inner circle about the balance he should strike between the severe spending squeeze to be outlined on 20 October and offering voters some light at the end of the tunnel once the £155bn deficit had been tackled.
In the end, he steered a middle course. In a key passage, he said: "I promise you that if we pull together to deal with these debts today, then just a few years down the line the rewards will be felt by everyone in the country. More money in your pocket. More investment in your businesses. Growing industries, better jobs, stronger prospects for our young people."
Mr Cameron admitted the child benefit controversy had shown that cutting the deficit would not be easy but insisted that,"those with the broadest shoulders should bear a greater load".
He also tried to put into perspective cuts in Whitehall budgets of seven per cent a year, saying lots of businesses had made similar savings and that at the end of the process, public spending would still be at its 2006 level.
The Prime Minister denied that his flagship "big society" project was about "creating cover for cuts" as he outlined passionately his offer of a "brand new start" for the nation. "It's about government helping to build a nation of doers and go-getters, where people step forward not sit back, where people come together to make life better ... A country, a society where we say: I am not alone. I will play my part."
In what he described as a "call to arms" he declared that society was not a spectator sport. He urged people to lead community projects; demand a new school in their area; join neighbourhood groups and even start a business. He said the Coalition with the Liberal Democrats would play its part but needed to mobilise people power too.
Recalling Lord Kitchener's poster calling for volunteers in the First World War, Mr Cameron said: "Your country needs you." The speech also echoed John F Kennedy's declaration: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."
Mr Cameron went on: "It takes two to build that strong economy. We'll balance the budget, we'll boost enterprise, but you start those businesses that lead us to growth. It takes two to build that big society. We'll reform public services, we'll devolve power, but you step forward to seize the opportunity."
A key plank was to devolve power in a way that would change the country permanently. "This is not a bit more power for you and a bit less power for central government – it's a revolution," he explained.
The speech was deliberately shorn of policy announcements. The only one had a "big society" theme – an "international citizen service" under which British 18-22 year-olds will do voluntary work for two months in developing nations. There will be 1,000 places in a pilot scheme next year. Afterwards it was hailed by Cabinet colleagues and business leaders but derided by Labour and union chiefs. The Conservative Party chairman Baroness Warsi said the speech was a "call to arms".
But the Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham said: "I think there's a large element of rewriting history here. Great pains have been taken by David Cameron to say it was all about the decisions that Labour took."
Leader's wife: That's a bit rich, Samantha
It is now a convention at party conferences that the leader's wife is on parade, to join him after the speech for the triumphal wave to the crowd. And no one can deny that Samantha Cameron looks magnificent, especially for a woman who has just given birth.
It helps that she can afford a £750 dress from Paul Smith. But then it is debatable whether it was a good idea to be dressed so expensively when her husband is making such a point of telling us that we will all have to make sacrifices as the cuts begin to bite.
Sam Cam takes her political advice from Kate Fall, her husband's deputy chief of staff, but does not necessarily consult her on her choice of attire. Will she be able to dress so well when she loses her child benefit in 2013?Reuse content