Conservative Party Conference: It's time that Cameron defines his legacy and seizes the centre ground

The Prime Minister must fire up the compassionate Conservatism that won him the party leadership

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The Independent Online

As the Conservatives open their annual conference, David Cameron has confounded his many critics. From the start of his party makeover ten years ago and throughout his prime ministership he has been dismissed as a lightweight, a public relations salesman rather than a politician of substance. He took over in a different economic and political era, before the banking crisis and at a time when discourse was dominated by Tony Blair. Yet this supreme pragmatist has not only survived, but thrived.

Commentators talk excitedly of power slipping from Cameron since he will not contest the next election. Yet as his party begins its forum in Manchester, the Prime Minister can survey the political scene with quiet satisfaction. He defeated the divisive Scottish nationalists last year, then won a parliamentary majority few anticipated even on voting day. Labour has turned sharp left into self-absorbed irrelevance, the Liberal Democrats lie crushed and the Ukip insurgency floundered with just one MP. 

Yet still people struggle to define a man who will have been in Downing Street longer than Benjamin Disraeli or Cameron’s hero Harold Macmillan if he hangs around until the next general election. This has begun to rankle aides, who see the conference as a chance to frame not just the political landscape but their leader’s legacy. “There needs to be a sense of mission for Dave,” said one. “We have five years in power and we have to shape those years.”

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David Cameron with wife Samantha outside Downing Street

But Cameron has changed the country with his blend of economic and social liberalism. Although as his former speechwriter I have always thought he was a politician who would be at his best in boom times, he seized on austerity to turn the nation down a different track after the bloated binge of the Gordon Brown years. The result will be a significantly smaller state whenever he retires. Interestingly, both wings of the Tory party buy into this post-Thatcherism; some of the most radical exponents are modernisers frustrated by the slow pace of reform in schools, health and housing. 

He has also reshaped his party, even if the selection of Zac Goldsmith as London mayoral candidate makes it seem like top jobs are restricted to people from one posh school. This makeover is not just cosmetic, with the welcome – if still insufficient – rise in numbers of ethnic minority and women MPs. The impressive 2015 intake shows a shift away from political advisers towards less-ideological types who have worked in outside jobs before Westminster. They include soldiers, nurses and postmen beside the inevitable business people, journalists and lawyers, and tend towards unflashy pragmatism like their leader. 

But having changed his country and the Conservatives, the real prize before the Prime Minister this week is the chance to transform politics for a generation. Labour spurned the electorate’s clear message by choosing the absurd Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Yes, some of his critiques of asylum, tribal politics and plutocrats may be correct. But protest politics from the past is not going to win back those people needed to win an election. Even the mild anti-austerity message of Ed Miliband (remember him?) was enough to ensure 5 per cent of Tory voters in May had switched from supporting Labour in 2010. 

The voters needed to win elections are found in the centre of the battleground, something analysts and political activists have an astonishing propensity to ignore. So Cameron must fire up the compassionate conservatism that won him the leadership by focusing on issues such as deprivation, disability, poverty and social mobility, especially given the necessary tax credit overhaul and forthcoming round of public spending cuts. Ignore the nimbys to find real solutions to the housing crisis. And cut the ground beneath Corbyn with sustained assaults on tax dodging and corporate misdeeds, especially in the wake of government inaction over dodgy car emissions. 

Hiking the minimum wage is a good start; ditching the cruel bedroom tax would also help. Such moves are made more important by polling showing how perceptions of the Prime Minister are shifting since the end of Coalition. YouGov’s tracking survey finds Corbyn viewed as twice as left-wing as Miliband, so hardline that he almost falls off the chart. Yet people now place Cameron to the right of his predecessor Michael Howard – and only slightly left of Ukip’s Nigel Farage. Dangerous terrain for a politician promoting himself as head of a One Nation party, jeopardising the chance to remould British politics.

There need to be fewer tactical feints and relentless strategic focus. But there is one other big blot on the landscape: Europe, which threatens to undermine the conference and crack open party fissures yet again. Support for Brexit has surged following the failure to resolve Greece’s economic meltdown and mishandled refugee crisis, ensuring isolationists and Little Englanders will be in buoyant mood in Manchester. These dreary obsessives are Cameron’s most dangerous foes and Corbyn’s best friends, offering the new Labour leader his best hope of gaining power by dividing the Tories.

It feels like little has changed over my adult lifetime as the Tory right bangs on about Europe and Labour feuds over nationalisation and unilateral nuclear disarmament. Yet these are fast-moving times – and love him or loathe him, Cameron has defied detractors to stamp himself on our current political era. This week, amid fevered talk of potential successors, we will start to see the indelibility of the mark that he will leave behind.

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