Cameron tells the Tories: we must "exude a confidence that we can win"

PM tells 1922 Committee reception that "boundaries or no boundaries", the Tories can win.

David Cameron was the surprise guest at tonight's 1922 Committee/ConservativeHome reception and he gave what sounded like a compressed version of his speech for Wednesday. Introduced by ConHome proprietor Lord Ashcroft, who he praised as a "great philanthropist", and by 1922 chairman Graham Brady (recently profiled by my colleague Caroline Crampton), Cameron declared that the Tories must "exude a confidence that we can win the next election", adding that he "absolutely believed" that they could. Drawing unlikely inspiration from Roy "Chubby" Brown, he recalled that the comedian had once joked that someone had told him that there was a rumour going round that he was "exceptional in bed". "Yes, I know," Brown replied, "I started it". In this spirit, Cameron suggested, the Tories should talk up their chances at the next election. An "outright Conservative majority" was "your ambition and my ambition".

He noted that between 1983 and 1987, the party averaged just 24% in the opinion polls, but that Margaret Thatcher went on to win a majority of 102 seats. While he would settle for less than that, he believed that "boundaries or no boundaries", the Tories could win. At the last election, the party had to target 160 seats, this time round it would need to target just 40. Attempting to define the terms on which the election will be fought, Cameron said voters would ask "which party has the best leaders, the best plan to deal with the debt and our economy, and the best plans to reform welfare, pensions and our schools".

Cameron's comments were designed to reassure those activists unsettled by his earlier suggestion that the coalition was superior to single-party government. In May, he was criticised for speaking merely of a future "Conservative-led government", an error he has been careful not to repeat.

Finally, I was amused by Cameron's quip that Ashcroft might want to consider purchasing "one or two newspapers" to aid the Tories' cause. Judging by Ashcroft's recent interventions (he criticised a recent anti-Labour Tory poster as "daft" and "juvenile"), there's no guarantee that the PM would win a better hearing.

David Cameron addresses the 1922 Committee/ConservativeHome reception at The Cube in Birmingham.

David Cameron listens to Foreign Secretary William Hague deliver his speech at the Conservative Party conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.