David Cameron doggedly pursues his “big society”

The crowd at the Conservative party conference still seems unsure of the leader’s message.

David Cameron has just delivered his first speech to the Conservative conference as Prime Minister and the response in the conference centre has been muted.

Despite the excited buzz that preceded his speech -- with the main hall full to capacity over an hour before it began -- it seems that Cameron's central message is still failing to capture the excitement of his own party fully (and certainly not that of the country at large).

In many ways, this was a good speech, effectively delivered. It was essentially Cameron's attempt to frame the mission of his government: refiguring the relationship between individual and state; transferring power to the local level.

It's easy to be dismissive of the "big society" idea but there's no questioning Cameron's dedication to it. Even though it did not fare well during the election campaign (despite being launched to great aplomb) and many in the party believe that it should be dropped in the face of voter incomprehension, the Prime Minister has doggedly persisted in trying to explain what his vision means. Phrases such as "the big society spirit blasting through" will do little to clarify the meaning to the general public, however.

"Your country needs you," Cameron declared, channelling Kitchener. But this was a strange leader's speech: Cameron soon switched his message to that of Marvin Gaye -- "it takes two", government and public, to make his vision happen. At times, he sounded as if he was pleading with the country for acceptance and help. During the final section of the long address, when he turned his attention to this message of localism and "bottom-up, not top-down" change, the previously excited crowd seemed strangely muted, perhaps bemused.

In the conference hall, the most jubilant cheers were reserved for the Labour-bashing (at one point delivered in a staccato rap that is crying out for a YouTube remix), criticism of the EU and the revelation that Margaret Thatcher will celebrate her 85th birthday at No 10.

This was a sincere address but the "big society" message still hasn't caught the imagination of the party. You must wonder, then, how exactly the Prime Minister plans to convince the rest of the country of the need for self-reliance, particularly as spending cuts begin to hit.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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