On 4 October 2005, a 38-year-old MP and candidate for his party’s leadership stood up to deliver a speech at the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool. Before the speech David Cameron was an outside bet, but by the time he left the stage he was the favourite.
It was a genuinely transformative speech. Cameron was well known within Westminster but not so much beyond that. This was his introduction to the party membership and they liked what they saw – both what he said and the way that he said it. When it became clear that quite a lot of the general public had reacted the same way, the contest was effectively over.
It is worth re-reading the speech and imagining a candidate for the Conservative Party leadership delivering an updated version – reflecting broadly the same attitudes and values as Cameron set out 17 years ago – to today’s membership. Rather than exhilarating party activists, it would repel them.
Cameron’s speech was undeniably Conservative. He expressed his support for lower taxes and, within a few seconds of the speech beginning, there was a reference (albeit passing) to “a European Union no one trusts”. There were calls for deregulation and recognising marriage in the tax system. There was plenty of Labour-bashing and extolling the importance of aspiration and freedom. None of this would sound particularly out of place in today’s Conservative Party.
As the speech progressed, however, new themes were developed. There was a relatively lengthy section on education focused on those with special needs; an emphasis on the inner cities and improving childcare; the case was made for providing support to the poorest in sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps most fundamentally, Cameron argued that “the fruits of economic growth” should be shared between tax cuts and higher spending on public services.
Cameron also made an explicit political argument. “Some say that we should move to the right,” he told Conservative activists. “I say that will turn us into a fringe party, never able to challenge for government again. I don’t want to let that happen to this party. Do you?” He went on to tell the party that it had “to recognise that we’re in third place amongst under-35s, that we’ve lost support amongst women, that public servants no longer think we’re on their side”.
He talked of younger voters disillusioned with the “back-biting” and “finger-pointing” in the House of Commons, the new parent worried about the “air her kids will breathe… and the food they put in their mouths” and the student with broad horizons to whom the Conservatives would offer “an outward-looking country that engages ethically and enthusiastically with the wider world”.
There are plenty who will criticise Cameron’s actions in government for not matching his rhetoric on public services, although he can legitimately claim that the state of the public finances in 2010 was much worse than he anticipated in 2005. My point is to highlight just how different his pitch was then to nearly everything we are hearing from Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak now.
Sharing the fruits of growth between tax cuts and supporting public services? Certainly not; the pressures on public spending are higher today than in 2005 but the questions in dispute in the current leadership election are about how far spending needs to be cut and how quickly taxes should be cut.
Compassion for the world’s poorest in sub-Saharan Africa? It is now a contest as to who can promise to send the most asylum seekers there.
Engaging enthusiastically with the wider world? In abstract, yes, but not when it comes to the three trading blocs that matter most – the EU, the US (who we have upset with our approach to Northern Ireland) and China. As for being an outward-looking country, just getting out of the country has become more of a challenge.
And can anyone imagine either Sunak or Truss standing up and criticising a move to the right? Imagine the reaction. It would be politically fatal.
The context, of course, is very different. In October 2005 the Conservatives had heavily lost the three previous general elections to Tony Blair’s Labour. Cameron’s argument for change, by which he meant moving to the centre, had a ready audience in a party desperate to return to power. Now, the Conservatives have been in office for 12 years and won the last general election by moving to the right (at least on some issues). The electoral logic in 2005 was with Cameron but in 2022 Cameron-style modernisation would risk losing much of the newly-acquired Tory support.
There is no escaping the conclusion, however, that the Conservative Party is a very different organisation to the one that listened and cheered Cameron on that October afternoon. Anyone serious about leading the party today has to say more about Europe and immigration, less about the environment and international development, more about tax cuts and less about public services. The pitch must be more about retaining the support of the old, less about attracting the support of the young.
Some will say that the “modern, compassionate conservatism” of which Cameron spoke belongs in a different era. I am not so sure about that. But it is clear that they do not appear to belong in the modern Conservative Party.