David Cameron Conference Leadership Bid: ‘fundamental change’

By Chris McCarthy

We’ve got to change our culture so we look, feel, think and behave like a completely new organisation.

David Cameron MP, 4 October 2005

In a few days David Cameron will address attendees at Manchester’s Central Conference Centre with the closing speech of the Conservative Party Conference. He will do so both as leader of his party and the country’s Prime Minister. It could have been very different. Following the 2005 general election defeat for the Conservative Party, then-leader Michael Howard agreed to step down after a successor had been selected. The front-runner for the leadership, right up until the autumn conference, was another David – David Davis.

In a brave move of bold theatre and recognising that this was probably his last opportunity to convince the party he was the right choice for the leadership, David Cameron addressed the hall at Blackpool in October 2005 without notes or a lectern, telling them they had to fundamentally change if they ever wanted to return to power. In throwing down the gauntlet Cameron was taking a big risk but trailing David Davis at the time, it was a gamble he had to take. It paid off. The race was thrown open and two months later Cameron was elected the new Conservative Party leader, beating Davis with over twice the votes.

The speech opened with the common conference device of listing the failures and disappointments of the governing [Labour] party but it then quickly turned introspective:

And still [despite Labour’s failures] we were defeated. We were defeated by a government that won fewer votes than any in history. But let’s not blame the electoral system…Let’s have the courage to say: they’ve failed – but so have we.

This was not a defeatist speech but a recognition that the Conservative Party had made mistakes in opposition, that the reasons for them not being in government were still their own responsibility and their own fault. This was a party David Cameron was proud to be a member of: “I joined this party because I love my country…I joined this party because I believe in freedom…I joined this party because I believe in aspiration,” but this sentiment, he argued, was not shared by enough people around the country: “I want people to feel good about being a Conservative again.”

Educational reform formed the policy cornerstone of the speech but it was built into a broader message of social mobility, of raising and facilitating aspiration, of shared responsibility; a program of ideological reform that David Cameron would describe as compassionate conservatism. The confidence and forthrightness of the young challenger have become hallmarks of his character in government but the audacity of the speech, not so much asking that the party changes but demanding that it does, and repudiating the old, established order, should not be understated.

We have to change and modernise our culture and attitudes and identity…I’m not talking about some slick rebranding exercise: what I’m talking about is fundamental change, so that when we fight the next election, street by street, house by house, flat by flat, we have a messages that is relevant to people’s live today, that shows we’re comfortable with modern Britain and that we believe our best days lie ahead.

The message’s resonance was delivered with a youthful energy, vigour and charisma that chimed with the narrative of a modern leader of a modern party for a modern country.

The comparisons between Cameron and former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Blair’s Heir, have been over-stressed but both use similar rhetorical devices on big stage occasions. Blair would often recall an exchange or encounter her had with a single mother, a cancer patient, a victim of robbery, etc., to extrapolate to a broader point or theme, moving from the real to the theory rather than always communicating in the abstract.

In his conference speech Cameron created hypothetical conversations that allowed him to stage what his policy response would be: with a mum struggling to pay for the dual costs of Christmas and school travel for their child; with people living in inner cities grappling with the problems of social breakdown or poor housing; with the young idealistic student “whose horizons are broader than these shores”. It’s an intelligent strategy that maintains a sense of the personal despite what is effectively a list of actions and promises.

It was all in stark contrast to David Davis’s lacklustre and uninspiring speech that was received as poorly by those party faithful in attendance as it was by the press. Davis’s campaign manager, Andrew Mitchell, insisted after the speech that a good conference address was not the “be all and end all” of a leadership bid – but it certainly helps and in Blackpool it marked the turning point in the leadership bid of David Cameron.

In less than 23 minutes Cameron took a sizeable step towards redefining the Conservative Party, towards transforming his leadership campaign, and towards shaping the future of Britain. Those doubters and cynics of conference season who find the back-slapping and hand-clapping disengaging and disinteresting would do well to remind themselves of their potential also to shake up the political landscape and define our country for years.

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