Tories shift direction with 'one nation' policy speech

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Iain Duncan Smith sought to shake off the Tories' image as the party of greed yesterday, launching a package of policies with a declaration that "materialism is not enough".

The Tory leader promised to help the worst off in society by giving them the choice of the best schools and hospitals, abolishing university tuition fees and wiping out drug culture in the inner cities.

In his most important policy speech since he became leader, Mr Duncan Smith revealed that his party's "big idea" was to offer world-class public services through a small-state, low-tax government. Launching the "Fair Deal for Everyone" campaign, which will run until the next election, he said the first Conservative administration of the 21st century would ensure that "no one is held back and no one is left behind".

A central policy would be abolishing tuition fees, which currently deter working-class pupils from higher education and impose a huge bill on the middle classes. The £700m-a-year cost would be met by scrapping the target of 50 per cent of adults under 30 going on to higher education by the end of the decade and an access regulator to enforce this.

Labour claimed the policy would lead to cuts of 100,000 student places and 13,000 lecturers while Universities UK said it would lead to a loss of "much-needed funding".

But Mr Duncan Smith, backed by Damian Green, the shadow Education Secretary, said the move would remove fees that "penalise hardworking families who want their children to get on".

The tuition fee proposal was one of several bold policies intended to grab the attention of voters, such as promises to put 40,000 more police on the streets, fund 20,000 more drug rehabilitation places, issue a new NHS "patient passport" and provide state scholarships.

Under the health plans, state funds would be handed to patients to afford treatment at a hospital of their choice, whether public or private. The state scholarship would give parents in deprived areas a voucher to send their children to a school of their choosing. Mr Duncan Smith's speech, delivered in the Beveridge Hall of the University of London, made a conscious effort to improve the Tories' image by claiming to "rebuild this country as one nation".

Critics have claimed that the party has drifted to the right by focusing again on the euro and asylum but Tory officials said the speech underlined a determination to keep to the "vulnerable" agenda.

Mr Duncan Smith pledged "not just to make poverty more bearable but to free people from it", and offered a vision of a society that would "leave no one behind.

"Fulfilment of potential is about much more than personal wealth. Lasting fulfilment stems from shared purpose – building community, raising the next generation, and public service," he said.

"Ultimately, materialism is not enough. The Conservative commitment is to nurture every person's full potential, enabling them to grow as individuals and stand tall as citizens. We all depend on each other for our security and opportunity. This is an enriching interdependence between people, not a stifling dependence on the state."

The Tory campaign will claim that the state has let down the poor and that more charities, religious groups and private-sector firms should deliver key services. "Britain doesn't just need a change of management, it needs a different kind of government altogether. Britain needs a government that understands that more people are left behind when more people are held back," Mr Duncan Smith said.

Stating his ambition "to free the next generation from drugs", the Conservative leader will unveil 16 Tory proposals to rebuild the community infrastructure of poor areas later this week.