Conservative activists in Manchester expecting a “true blue” speech from their leader were in for a surprise on Wednesday.
David Cameron set out a social reform agenda combining rigorous action against extremism with the far more liberal aims of rehabilitating prisoners and rooting out inequality.
Scorning the idea of a black person being “constantly stopped and searched by the police because of the colour of their skin”, or a gay person being “rejected for a job because of the person they love”, the prime minister set out an ambitious vision intended to place the Tories back in the centre ground.
His conference address also represented a conscious move away from some of his own party colleagues — not least the “tough justice” mentality of Chris Grayling, the former Tory justice secretary, and the warnings about immigrants eroding social cohesion expressed only the day before by Theresa May, home secretary.
One of the clearest changes of direction was Mr Cameron’s pledge to end the “sterile lock-em-up-or-let-em-out debate” around prisoners, as he mooted the idea of sending fewer criminals to jail and instead detaining offenders in the community with electronic tags.
Justice campaigners seized on this distinctly un-Tory suggestion, with Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, heralding the beginning of a “more intelligent, thoughtful and compassionate discussion” about the prison estate.
“For the first time since the days of Winston Churchill, a government has clearly set out its intention to take a principled stance on protecting the public without sinking to the lynch-mob mentality that has blighted justice policy in Britain for decades,” said Ms Crook.
The prime minister also vowed to do more to address inequality, admitting that Britain had the lowest social mobility in the developed world and deploring the fact that the “salary you earn is more linked to what your father got paid than in any other major country”. He told his audience that education reforms — already entrenched under the coalition — would continue to raise the aspirations of “children, parents and communities”.
However, his most substantial policy announcement was on combating non-violent extremism, and ending what he called a “passive tolerance” of those who promote dangerous ideology. As the threat from Islamist militancy poses an increasing threat to UK security, he announced that religious instruction facilities such as Muslim madrassas would be subjected to a new inspection regime.
Mr Cameron said that while there was nothing wrong with children learning more about their faith in madrassas, Sunday schools or Jewish yeshivas, some of these bodies were preaching conspiracy theories. “Children should be having their minds opened, their horizons broadened — not having their heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate,” he said.
The new regime is expected to apply to an estimated 5,000 religious institutions, offering eight or more hours of study a week, which are not currently regulated by the authorities.
Under the proposals, these “supplementary schools” will have to register with the Department for Education. Faith groups are to be consulted on the details of how inspections should be conducted and whether they should be carried out by the schools watchdog Ofsted or another organisation.
The Muslim Council of Britain said it was “concerned” at the targeting of religious schools, making clear that it was “not prevalent in madrassas to be isolationist or to preach hate of other faiths”.
“We would hope that these serious allegations can be substantiated and the evidence brought forward, so that appropriate action can be taken,” said a spokesman.
Jonathan Russell, of the Quilliam Foundation anti-extremism think-tank, said his team had heard evidence and cases of radicalisation happening in bodies such as madrassas.
“Generally we should be looking to safeguard all young people, and take responsibility as a state for that,” he said. “Not all madrassas are bad, but they are unregistered so we don’t know which ones are acting responsibly . . . and which are, at the other end of the spectrum, promoting extremism.”