David Cameron’s speech: FT writers give their verdicts

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In a speech that touched on the Conservatives’ election victory, national security, immigration, relations with the EU, the new Labour leader, home ownership, education and the economy, David Cameron promised a defining decade for Britain — “one which people will look back on and say, ‘that’s the time when the tide turned’.”

Janan Ganesh, political commentator

It is customary to say that David Cameron is at ease with himself. More important is his ease with the country he governs. He spoke to the Conservative party conference in Manchester as Father of the Nation, not as prime minister. He was proud of Britain’s successes (especially those under his tenure) and animated by paternal concern for its eminently fixable problems. There was no neurosis here — no resentment of a country that has somehow got it all wrong and needs turning upside down. There used to be lots of that on the right. There is now lots of it on the left.

Whatever remains of the Labour party’s political judgment after electing the firebrand Jeremy Corbyn as leader should tell them that they are in a world of trouble. Mr Cameron’s speech appropriated left-liberal causes greedily: racial equality, gender equality, prison reform, children’s care. These are just words but they sweeten the bitter work of austerity, which remains the central purpose of this government despite the prime minister’s skirting of the subject today. They reassure swing voters about Mr Cameron’s character and motives and may, in time, improve the corporate reputation of his party too. Labour increasingly has nowhere to go but the outer limits of the left.

It sometimes felt like Mr Cameron was rounding off his reform of the Tory party, which began 10 conference speeches ago in 2005. “Everything I have ever believed in — all there!” said one MP on the left of the party after his leader departed the stage.

The prime minister’s version of conservatism, fiscally hardline but offset with a missionary social conscience, is somewhere near the electoral sweetspot. The test is whether it survives beyond his own leadership, which he confirmed would end by 2020. A prime minister who, on Wednesday’s evidence, could serve another 10 years will be a nightmare to replace in three or four years.

Cameron spoke as 'Father of the Nation, not as prime minister'

Sarah Gordon, business editor

David Cameron’s government makes no bones about its belief that the support of the business community can be taken for granted.

Since taking power in May, it has announced a series of measures which, to many of its traditional friends in that community, feel like the government taking advantage of that support by shifting some of the cost of its policies on to the private sector — whether it be the “super tax” on banks, the apprenticeship levy, or the introduction of the compulsory £9 an hour “national living wage” as the centrepiece of George Osborne’s summer budget.

With an unanticipated majority in the Commons, the chancellor and prime minister’s complacency is perhaps understandable — and has been bolstered by the triumph of left-winger Jeremy Corbyn, who vaunts his anti-business credentials, in the Labour party leadership campaign.

Mr Cameron’s speech did not deviate from the post-May playbook. Among the poetic effusions (after the election “a bluer light fell across our isles”), the uncomfortable allusion to his sex life with Samantha, barbed references to political opponents and the reiterated bids for the political centre-ground, there was no direct message to business. Mr Cameron did not even mention it in his speech, preferring instead to target his message at other groups in society where the government has less reason for complacency — such as young people, now being wooed with promises of cheaper housing; women, whose pay gap with men will now be made public; or ethnic minorities, whose unjust difficulties in applying for jobs was excoriated by the prime minister.

Mr Cameron may be right to feel he does not need to butter up the private sector. After all, one of the few things upon which all UK business bosses are agreed is that economic stability and growth are the most important priorities. Mr Cameron said in his speech that the Tories — and his “Iron Chancellor” — were better at protecting the country against future “rainy days” than their opponents. The business community, despite its grumbles at this government’s lack of generosity towards it, still believes that to be the case.

Jonathan Guthrie, City editor

It takes an Old Etonian to extol equality of opportunity as confidently as David Cameron did. It helped that he was reading at a lectern, rather than speaking from memory as he sometimes did when in opposition.

A solid majority means Mr Cameron does not need to invent a gimmick that appeals to the naive. Besides, Labour already has one of those in the form of Jeremy Corbyn.

The equality promoted by Mr Cameron is that of opportunity, rather than of outcome — as envisaged by the new Labour leader through nationalisation and tax. The prime minister’s rallying cry was sheer orthodoxy for business sympathisers.

His speech lacked much to support his vision apart from the claim to economic competence that any chief executive managing through an upturn is liable to make. Mr Cameron cited the national living wage; it will surprise retailers and care-home entrepreneurs to discover price controls are a springboard for opportunity.

The prime minister mocked Mr Corbyn’s plans for “unorthodox” quantitative easing, as if he had forgotten that the original slug of QE, so hugely beneficial to financial markets, was unconventional in its day and partly dispensed on his watch.

In a toe-curling digression he said he had taken home a book called “the Joy of Tax” by Mr Corbyn’s QE guru to “show Samantha”. None of the 64 positions worked, he chortled smuttily. Mr Cameron as the beardy guy from Alex Comfort’s Joy of Sex is just the latest disturbing mental image of the prime minister that Britons may never be able to erase from their memories.

The prime minister could at least represent a plan to turn social rented housing within new residential developments into affordable homes as a fillip for first-time buyers. “Generation rent” will become “generation buy”, he said. It will then presumably become “generation work until it drops” in the south east, where prices are exorbitantly high thanks to the government’s failure to dismantle planning controls.

This move will do nothing to tackle chronic undersupply. But it will delight property developers who dislike providing rented homes to folks predisposed to store old sofas in their front gardens. Instead, the properties will go to a group closer to the deserving poor — or humanities graduates, as they are known these days.

Mr Cameron will have connected with many business people in saying he supports the Europe of free markets but not ever-closer union. He gave employers a well deserved smack for preferring job candidates with names like Christian England over Mohammed Islam. Some of the prime minister’s best cabinet colleagues are black, he reminded us.

The prime minister said he was delighted that Cornwall was “all Tory”. The Cornish represent about 1 per cent of the UK population. That, by a curious coincidence, is the same percentage, as defined socio-economically, who benefit most from Tory governments.

Among the poetic effusions and barbed references there was no direct message to business

Robert Shrimsley, columnist

David Cameron won the Tory leadership with a speech to a Conservative party conference; on Wednesday he reminded the party and the country why they originally liked him.

His immediate mission was to bind the party together for what are going to be some testing times. Labour’s choice of Jeremy Corbyn means that, barring economic collapse, the next election is there for the taking as long as the Conservatives continue to look like a competent party of government. But the challenges it faces over the cuts to tax credits will rattle their nerves while the splits over Europe will shred their discipline.

Just as parties win elections by owning the centre ground and marginalising their opponents, the same rules apply within parties. In the European debate, Mr Cameron must pull the mainstream of the Conservative party into his column — a place it does not really want to be.

His appeal to them to let him strike a deal that secured the “best of both worlds” received dutiful but unconvinced applause. For the moment they will continue to bear with him, but his premiership will be defined by the looming EU referendum and his party is deeply sceptical that he can deliver enough.

The Tory leader did not dwell overlong on his new Labour opponent, but his attack on Mr Corbyn as a “security-threatening, terrorist sympathising, Britain-hating” politician was as sharp as it was short. While Mr Corbyn may not pose a threat, the forces that propelled him to power do. It is not only the poor and the underprivileged who look to the future with fear. Middle-class families worry that their children will struggle to meet the aspirations they once took for granted: owning their own home and finding a good job when many professional posts are being automated out of existence. Mr Cameron needed to show them the Conservatives understand those fears and can offer solutions. On housing, he grasped the nettle, although at the price of deprioritising the rental sector. On work, he had little to say beyond his belief in the long-term economic plan.

Perhaps his most striking passages came with the areas of social reform, when he talked of discrimination, of doing better for children in care and a more enlightened approach to penal reform being prisoners. This was not merely a drive into the centre-ground. It was also the Cameron we first got to know — a modern conservative, concerned with the social fabric of society and talking the language of enlightened reform. This was the talk that got lost in his first term — and may be lost again — as the realities of austerity keep hold. But even as he tried to place the Conservatives on the side of the poor Mr Cameron must know that the cuts to tax credits will hurt the very people on whose side the Conservatives say they wish to be.

Mr Cameron’s aides briefed that this was a speech in which he would tackle the issue of his time-limited leadership; it was in these passages that we saw a man who knows the clock is ticking and he has not yet done the things he came to power intending to do.

Cameron's speech 'reminded the party and the country why they originally liked him'

Jonathan Ford, chief leader writer

David Cameron’s first conference speech as prime minister of a majority Conservative government was redolent of his pitch for the leadership 10 years ago. Back then, he evoked the idea of compassionate Conservatism, envisioning an empowered society sorting out its own problems. Addressing the Tory faithful in Manchester in the wake of his electoral triumph in May, he was comfortable returning to the theme.

The focus of Mr Cameron’s address was on living up to “the great traditions” of Conservative social reform. He systematically listed the issues that needed to be tackled if Britain was to have a “better society”. These included equality, poverty, social mobility, and extremism.

These are not themes that normally dominate a leader’s speech at Tory conference. But they allowed Mr Cameron to achieve several things. One was to move his party firmly into Labour territory, taking advantage of Jeremy Corbyn’s lurch to the left. A second was to set out a vision for his final term that goes beyond the economy and the hard grind of deficit reduction. At a time when Mr Cameron is already beset by questions of how long he will remain at Number 10, it was also vital for him to set out some visionary purpose.

The central theme of the speech was Mr Cameron’s idea of a confident Britain, independent of Europe and asserting its values in the world. Some of this was traditional Tory fare, such as strong defence and a housing policy designed to deliver a property-owning democracy. More striking, perhaps, was the prime minister’s focus on the contribution made by Britain’s ethnic minorities and the need to help them progress. This marked a sharp contrast with the rather sour vision of immigration painted by Theresa May, the home secretary, on Tuesday.

The test for Mr Cameron will be whether his inclusive vision jars too much with the tough economic decisions the government is yet to implement. The policy of cutting tax credits for working people has already been criticised by senior Tories for being too tough. This autumn’s spending review will also push through heavy spending reductions in unprotected departments such as local government and police.

While Mr Cameron clearly wants to position his party in the centre ground of British politics, his opponents will cast these moves as a way of shifting policy to the right.

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