The youthful leader of Britain’s Conservatives grew hoarse in the repetition: his party is changing. Really. By the close of the Tories’ Bournemouth conference he sounded like he meant it. Even the hard-bitten cynics of the media were conceding that David Cameron might actually be telling the truth.
Mr Cameron’s closing conference speech was well-judged. By making its centrepiece a personal commitment to National Health Service, he reinforced once again the message of change. The Tories have spent the past several decades speaking as if the health service was a socialist imposition they were obliged to tolerate. Mr Cameron called the NHS a vital symbol of “collective will and social solidarity”. And his audience cheered.
The Tory leader is more a political conversationalist than a political orator. He lacks Tony Blair’s Thespian genius. But this, his first full-length conference address, was a good speech, well-delivered. There were some amusing jokes at the expense of the party’s front-bench clown Boris Johnson and its ageing polecat Norman Tebbit; and some good jibes at Mr Blair – the Tories really would be tough on crime and on its causes.
The other strong performer in Bournemouth was George Osborne. The even-more-youthful shadow chancellor suffers from looking his age. But he is wiser than his years. He has understood that sound money and stability are conservative principles and that there is more to economic policy than tax rates. He also knows how to frame a political argument.
Of course, there was plenty for observers to scoff at: the party’s hug-a-tree logo, the overly earnest conversations about work-life balance, the guest appearances on the platform by leftist civil libertarians and NGO activists. Party members sometimes seemed baffled, and many would have been more comfortable talking about tax cuts and hanging and flogging.
But you could see Mr Cameron’s purpose. Changing the terms of his party’s discourse is the essential precursor to fixing it in the political ground he is now seeking to occupy – the centre. How many would have bet on a Conservative conference loudly applauding it’s leaders support for gay civil partnerships? So if there were grumbles about the leadership’s repeated refusal to offer tax cuts, a threatened rebellion never really took off. Lord Tebbit may be destined for the role long occupied by Dennis Skinner in the Labour party.
Mr Cameron is also on to something in drawing a new dividing line between society and the state. Even New Labour has often failed to understand the distinction between public service, in all its many guises, and state provision of public services. The Tory leader has not quite found the right rhetorical framework for what he calls social reponsibility. But the idea of putting society on the side of the individual in place of a suffocating state.
These, as Mr Cameron was telling anyone who would listen this week, are early days. It will take more than one conference to re-educate his party; and more than the embrace of voter-friendly values to win the Conservatives an election. But you can see where the Tory leader is going. For the past decade New Labour has had the centre ground to itself. It suddenly looks a lot more crowded.
Get alerts on UK politics & policy when a new story is published