Editorial: A speech to rally the Tory party (un)faithful

Mr Cameron deserves to be commended for his efforts to lead the Conservatives from the front

After six torrid months of U-turns, mid-term torpor and increasingly vocal attacks from obstreperous backbenchers, much was riding on David Cameron's speech to the Conservative Party conference yesterday. In the event, it was as interesting for what the Prime Minister did not say, as for what he did.

There was, for example, no mention of a referendum on EU membership – all the hints to calm prospective Ukip defectors having been safely dropped the day before. In fact, there was hardly any reference to Europe at all, barring the reprise of last year's treaty veto offered as a barely disguised quid pro quo for the less popular policy of maintaining overseas aid. Nor was Europe the only notable absence; there was also no tub-thumping on those other Tory staples, crime and immigration, either.

Mr Cameron chose his tone carefully, attempting the statesmanship of the Prime Minister rather than the showmanship of the Mayor of London, and using as his canvas the vast competitive battleground of the global economy rather than the inward-looking, "intellectual" politicking of the Opposition. He may not have managed the wow-factor of Ed Miliband's surprise barnstormer at last week's Labour conference. Neither could he compete with Tuesday's ex tempore flamboyance from Boris Johnson. But the Prime Minister's speech was a welcome dose of realism, nonetheless. Behind the hyperbole about Britain's "hour of reckoning" lies an appreciation of the opportunities and dangers of fast-growing emerging economies that is to be applauded.

True, there were no policy announcements, and no specifics on how the grand vision for a more globally competitive Britain "on the rise" might help the economic recovery in anything like the short term. But this was a speech as much for the party faithful (and unfaithful) as for the country at large. And, more than anything, the Prime Minister is to be commended for his efforts to lead his party from the front.

Refusing to be spooked by critics' claims that he is in hock to the lily-livered Liberal Democrats, Mr Cameron not only set out the most cogent explanation of "compassionate Conservatism" so far, he also resisted the siren calls of his party's right wing. With pressure from within palpably building, and the recent reshuffle creating a Cabinet that now looks more hardline than its leader, Mr Cameron might have taken the easier route. Instead, by steering clear of hot-button topics such as law and order, by chiding the Nimbys who stand in the way of new housing, and by talking stirringly of fairness and aspiration – with the rare flourish: "I'm not here to defend privilege, I'm here to spread it" – he set his stall firmly in the centre ground. An attempt to shake off the "nasty party" tag, yes; but also a reminder to the Tories themselves of what it will take to win an election.

In the immediate aftermath, praised equally by the likes of Nadine Dorries on the fringes and so redoubtable a centrist as Ken Clarke, Mr Cameron appeared to have pulled it off. But the speech itself was rather more convincing than supporters' talk of a new-found unity behind its content. Faced with detailed plans for gay marriage or building on the green belt, business as usual will swiftly return.

Mr Cameron's point stands, however. Yesterday's speech explicitly set out the "battle lines" for the next election; only by sticking to the centre can the Tories hope to win. And in this thinking, at least, the Prime Minister is not alone. All three party conferences have seen leaders tilting to the middle ground while the hearts of their loyalists remain elsewhere.