Yesterday, David Cameron gave us what many have said was missing: a narrative. A powerful, principled, personal and passionate narrative – not complicated, but compelling. It was the clearest declaration of his values we have heard.
For those of us who have followed Cameron closely and supported him over the past seven years, there were no surprises. Ever since I decided to support his leadership in the summer of 2005, even before he declared his candidacy, I knew what his message was.
But there have been parts of the country who have felt that, even after seven years, they did not know him or what he stood for. And the compassionate Conservatism, ‘Big Society’ theme has been noticeably absent in the past year.
Now, it is back. We are in government to do more than simply cut the deficit, vital though that is. We are in government to help the poor and disadvantaged get on in life, through education, welfare reform, overseas aid and economic reform: a mixture of help and discipline, a hand up but not a hand-out.
The Prime Minister drew clear battle lines between modern, compassionate Conservatives and what he dubbed the “one notion” Labour Party. Conservatives combine care for the poor with ambition and responsibility, while Labour have only one tune – borrowing. We are the party for the poor, because we want to help the poor out of poverty. Labour may like to position themselves as the party of the poor, but their policies keep them in poverty.
There is an expression someone told me once: “Pity weeps and turns away, compassion looks and stretches out a hand”. Labour may wear their heart on their sleeve and be full of hand-wringing pity, but it is we Conservatives, rolling up our sleeves and getting on with the job, who are the party of true compassion.
A central theme that underpins the narrative is the belief that it does not matter where you come from, what matters is where you are going. Labour talk of “one nation” but practise class war, while we are the party for everyone. “We don’t look at the label on the tin, we look at what’s in it,” said Cameron. “They call us the party of the better-off. No: we are the party of the want to be better-off, those who strive to make a better life for themselves and their families – and we should never, ever be ashamed of saying so.”
Nowhere is this more true than in education. Free schools, academies, rising exam standards, improvements in discipline – this is all about expanding opportunity. One of the best lines in Cameron’s speech was this: “And to all those people who say: he wants children to have the kind of education he had at his posh school I say: yes – you’re absolutely right. I went to a great school and I want every child to have a great education. I’m not here to defend privilege, I’m here to spread it.”
The heart of it all is encapsulated in “the aspiration nation”. Evoking the spirit of the Olympics and our own island history, Cameron reminded us that we are a ‘can do’ nation. “This is the country that invented the computer, defeated the Nazis, started the web, saw off the slave trade, unravelled DNA and fought off every invader for a thousand years. We even persuaded the Queen to jump out of a helicopter to make the rest of the world smile. There is absolutely nothing we cannot do.”
That includes winning the 2015 General Election. The Prime Minister has given us the vision and narrative with which to fight over the course of the next two years for a Conservative majority in 2015. He deserves something from us in return: unity, focus and hard work. We should put aside Borismania for now, stop idle speculation about leadership questions, and focus our sights on our values, and stopping the unrepentant spend-aholic class warriors who sharpened their spears in Manchester last week from getting back into power.
That said, it would be hard to ignore the fact that this year’s party conference highlighted two clear potential contenders for the leadership in the future, post-Cameron. Whenever that may be – hopefully not for a long time beyond 2015, as we aim to win a new term for Cameron. But whenever it happens, there is little doubt that Boris Johnson, if he gets back into Parliament, will be a contender. And there is equally little doubt in my mind that Michael Gove should be a contender too.
The contrast between them is stark. Ego versus humility, charisma versus sincerity, humour versus honesty, fun versus seriousness, voter appeal versus values and vision.
Like everyone, I love Boris. He makes me laugh. He has done good things as Mayor. He has proven that a Conservative can win in tough times against the odds. He puts a smile on my face. And he certainly has a crucial role to play in the party for many years to come.
But what does he truly stand for? What is his narrative? Perhaps he will prove me wrong, but my worry with Boris is that his narrative is Boris. Not really much more than that. And that may be enough to win votes, but will it be enough to take the tough decisions in government and give the people a vision? Making people laugh is a different skill from making people think about their future.
Gove, on the other hand, is all about values and substance. In fact, among ministers he is really only rivalled in terms of values and substance by Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague. Read his conference speech. Read what the media are starting to say about him.
When the time comes, hopefully not until well beyond 2015, Gove would be the natural successor to a successful Cameron premiership. The narrative would continue, indeed the values would be more embedded, the purpose for a Conservative government even more clear – and even more attractive. He is the embodiment of the aspiration nation.
For now, however, let’s take what was achieved yesterday and tell the world: that yes, it is possible to take tough decisions and be compassionate. Indeed, it is because we care that we take the tough decisions. It is possible to protect the international aid budget and make sure that the money we give really makes a difference to saving lives around the world. It is possible to be ambitious without being selfish. It is possible to combine the different strands of Conservatism into one clear message: one narrative for one nation.