Leading article: A liberal Conservative presents his first draft

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The Independent Online

This time last year, the Conservative Party was celebrating the end of a rousing conference that had doubled as the inaugural hustings for its leadership contest. Much - justified - self-congratulation was in the air over the open and substantial argument that was taking place after the party's third general election defeat in succession. There was excitement, but also trepidation, about the prospect of a youthful leader with a modern outlook taking the helm.

Yesterday. in his first conference address as the victor of that contest, David Cameron demonstrated both how much has been achieved since last October, but also how very much more there is to do. It was a vigorous speech, clearly designed more to complete the rebranding of the Conservative Party from "nasty" to "nice" than to introduce policies.

Not that policies were to be expected. Mr Cameron has said time and again that no detailed policies will be formulated until the individual working groups have reported next year. The charge that, as leader, he has more style than substance, however, has evidently hit home: the phrase "real substance" was a leitmotif of his speech.

And among the high-flown generalities and abundant hot air, there was some serious politics. There was the lengthy reassurance he offered to the party - and the country - that the NHS would be safe with the Conservatives, not least because his own family was "so often in the hands of the NHS". There were his points on civil liberties, the rejection of ID cards and the call for terrorist suspects to be subject to due process of the law. And there was his attack Tony Blair's style of "sofa government", which received sustained applause.

The omissions were as eloquent as the inclusions. There was no direct mention of immigration, although Mr Cameron spoke about the Cantle report and the need to tackle the development of different communities living "parallel lives". The economy - the forte of Gordon Brown and New Labour - merited barely a word. Likewise the vexed question - for a Conservative government - of taxation. And in the muted applause that met his reference to civil partnerships as a footnote to his paean to marriage, there was more than a hint of the gap between Mr Cameron and numbers of the party faithful.

But it was not the only gap that was in evidence yesterday. Whether he was criticising NHS reorganisation, calling for greater social mix in housing or warning of the potential conflict between, for instance, "green" considerations and housing demand or low tax, he gave little indication of how he would set about achieving the desired result. The challenge for the policy working groups will be devise the mechanisms for moving from here to there.

It is early in Mr Cameron's leadership, of course, and this Conservative conference was chiefly about image. As such, it succeeded in what it set out to do. For his keynote speech as a self-styled "liberal Conservative", Mr Cameron chose a Blair-style red tie. He strode to the platform to reggae music and well-chosen clips from previous appearances. The conference as a whole, with its generous use of hi-tech audio and video, discussion forums and celebrity guests, made for far livelier proceedings than before. We suspect that these techniques will not be limited to the Tories next year.

This year's party conference season came at a peculiar juncture in British politics. Labour is in effect between leaders; the Conservatives are in effect between policies. By next autumn, the Labour Party will have its new leader and the Conservatives will - we trust - have some policies to call their own. This is when the serious arguments will begin.