This speech was authentic Cameron. It was the most modernising speech that he has given since becoming Prime Minister and an attempt to reposition the Tories as the party of ‘true equality’. It was a return to the approach that characterised his leadership before the financial crash of 2008.
Traditional Tory thinking has always been that if you work hard you get on, that you can pull yourselves up by your bootstraps. But this speech argued that for some people in society this simply isn’t true, that they find their opportunities blocked at every turn. Cameron cited the example of a black girl who had to change her name to Elizabeth before she got any job interviews. Ameet Gill, Cameron’s director of strategy and one of the architects of the speech, along with Jessica Cunniffe, is fond of quoting the Martin Luther King line that ‘it’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.’
Throughout the speech Cameron used the kind of statistics that you would expect an opposition leader to use—three babies a day are born in Britain addicted to heroin, 70% of prostitutes were once in care, half of criminals reoffend within a year of being released—to make his argument about the scale of social reform that is needed in Britain. Listening to him, you were left in no doubt that it is this, and not the economy, that really fires him up. It was striking that Michael Howard’s former special adviser was willingly to declare that the prison ‘system is still not working’.
Politically, the aim of this speech was to peel off voters from Labour and establish an era of Tory hegemony. After the speech, one Cabinet Minister declared to me, ‘We will dominate the centre ground’. The speech contained specific pitches to groups of voters that the Tories believe they can now win over because of Corbyn’s election as Labour leader.
Having won a majority, the Tory party is now prepared to trust Cameron’s instincts. When he talked about ‘true equality’, not a naturally Tory phrase, they rose and gave him a standing ovation. The only cloud on his horizon, though, is Europe. The section in the speech on the renegotiation was strikingly thin and very short on detail.
But there’s no disputing that Cameron leaves Manchester as the dominant figure in both his party and British politics. If he can deliver the social reforms that he set out today, then he will have changed both his party and the country.