Speaking at a Spectator debate last night, Tim Montgomerie laid out some of the reasons for thinking David Cameron more the heir to Thatcher than, as some of the old right think he may be, a squishy heir to Heath. I wouldn't agree with all of it but it's a good speech and a good case. This bit in particular is a fine summary of the modernisers' argument:
For years there has been an unholy alliance of the Guardian Left and unreconstructed right who only want the Tories to talk about tax, crime, Europe and immigration.
[...] But added to this traditional mix Cameron also wants the Tories to be the party of social justice, the natural environment. He wants the party to occupy the full stage. He wants the party to play every instrument in the orchestra. For too long the Left have faced a narrow Conservatism and defeated it. They have never faced a conservatism that is as serious about fighting poverty as it is about cutting crime. Never faced a party that is as determined to protect our natural environment as protect British sovereignty. I think it could be the most formidable conservative offering for a generation, anywhere in the world.
He wants the party to play every instrument in the orchestra
A friend suggested to me today that while American elections often centre on values, British ones revolve around economics. Perhaps that's true and certainly the ongoing brouhaha over a small difference on National Insurance contributions bolsters that case to a depressing extent given how small, as I say, the differences are. Even here however and for all that Brown wants to make this another of his dividing lines it's worth noting that it's the Conservative position that leaves the worker on modest earnings better off than they would be under Labour.
As for Labour's claim - repeated by government ministers who must, one hopes, know better - that letting tax-payers keep £5bn of their own money that would otherwise be handed over to the state amounts to "taking money out of the economy" then, well, words come close to failing one. If this were true then perhaps the only way to keep money in the economy is to raise taxes to 100% of all income. That would be silly, but so is Labour's argument on this.
None of which means that the Tories have all the answers. I'm less persuaded than James, for instance, about their National Citizen Service proposals but accept that if we must have such programmes they must be voluntary and run (and funded one trusts!) independently of government.
Still, whatever misgivings one may have, it's another part of the jigsaw. The Tory themes - Family, Community, Country - remain constant but the means of expanding on them has to shift with the times.
I suspect that the Tories' support is quite shallow - the public are sceptical and not unreasonably so - but that this support is also pretty broad and that as the polling day approaches there will be a gathering sense that the Conservatives merit an opportunity. Again, given the public mood there's little reason to suppose that they can inspire great dollops of optimism (and that's no bad thing in my view) but a measure of cautious hope along the lines of "well, let's see what they can do" would be a sensibly level-headed conclusion to reach...