Cameron leaves Tories confused - are we right wing or right on?
Biggest cheers come for attack on work-shy benefit scroungers - not for overseas aid and gay marriage
DAVID CAMERON closed the Conservative party conference today by seeking to reclaim the centre-ground of British politics from Ed 'One Nation' Miliband.
He warned his own right-wing backbenchers that he would not be blown off-course from his brand of 'compassionate Conservativism'. Admitting there are party members who are sceptical about overseas aid, for example, he made it plain that cuts would not include the aid budget.
He even recommitted the Tories to other controversial issues which have upset the right, including a clear hint he will go ahead with legislation on gay marriage. "My mission from the day I became leader was... to show the Conservative party is for everyone, north or south, black or white, straight or gay," he told the conference.
The Prime Minister also admitted his speech was explicitly aimed at combating the 'cartoon' image of the Tory party presented by Labour’s Ed Miliband as the party of privileged toffs, out of touch with ordinary people. The Old Etonian declared to loud applause: "I am not here to defend privilege - I am here to spread it."
He matched Miliband's personal touch by mentioning his handicapped father, but added: "I don't have a hard luck story. My dad was a stock-broker from Berkshire... it's a hard work story."
The 50-minute speech pleased most commentators. Tom Bradby, ITN political editor, tweeted: "Cameron's speech was an interesting response to Miliband; gritty, chunky, trenchant, tightly argued and passionate. Probably his best."
Tim Shipman, deputy political editor of the Daily Mail agreed: "Cameron's best speech since 2007. He concentrated on what works for him: welfare, schools, aspiration and economic competence."
Ken Clarke, the lefty Tory Cabinet minister without portfolio, gave it a double thumbs-up. "David made us electable and emerged as a moderate Conservative and stopped us going on with some of that right-wing nonsense that has kept us out of office," he told BBC TV. "He [Cameron] reaffirmed that."
The problem for Cameron as he and his MPs return to Westminster is that anything Ken Clarke likes gives his party a fainting fit. The truth is the biggest cheers in the hall came for Cameron's most right-wing promises - to crack down on the feckless work-shy benefit-scroungers by ending the automatic right to housing benefit for those under 25 who have never had a job, and families who got bigger houses by having more children.
On the economy it was a grim message. He said Britain faced a choice of 'sink or swim, do or decline' unless it engaged in radical reform to bureaucracy, education, and welfare costs. And he saw no alternative – no Plan B – to the austerity programme designed to reduce the nation’s debt.
He won praise for being honest, and his joke about Labour being a "one notion" party - that notion being "borrow, borrow,borrow" - wasn’t bad. But he risks sending the party home with a confused message - what sort of party are the modern Tories? Right wing or right on?
One last point: the amount of time Cameron devoted in his address to refuting claims the Tories are posh and arrogant was seen by some observers as a clear signal that Andrew Mitchell's position as Chief Whip is again at risk after he was caught accusing Downing Street police of being "plebs".
Mitchell avoided the Tory conference altogether but he may not be able to escape the push. ·