In one sense conference speeches follow a predictable pattern. They rubbish their opponents and trumpet their own achievements. At the same time they can be very different, and were this year.
Nick Clegg claimed credit for all the Coalition’s achievements and made a case for another Coalition post the 2015 election. Ed Miliband signalled that Labour is moving leftward with talk of nationalising railways, confiscating the land developers are hoarding and fixing energy prices. David Cameron rejected calls within his party to move to the right and held fast to the centre ground.
Tributes to Margaret Thatcher are routine at Tory conferences but she must surely have turned in her grave when Cameron called for applause “for Britain’s social workers who are doing such an important job in our country today” and the conference responded with a standing ovation.
The centrist character of the speech was evident in its core theme – building a land of opportunity – because it was opportunity for all. He said it makes no difference where you live, your skin colour, your gender, the school you went to and who your parents were, “what matters is the effort you put in, and if you put the effort in you’ll have the chance to make it. “That’s what the land of opportunity means”, and it means North as well as South. On Europe the promised referendum will give voters their say but he made no concessions to those pressing for collaboration with UKIP and reminded his party that he had “vetoed that treaty”, kept Britain out of the bailout scheme and cut the EU budget.
Inevitably he excoriated Labour for its past mismanagement of the economy and its conference statements for the future. He branded them a party of the past, wedded to a dangerous cocktail of spending, borrowing and debt that showed nothing had been learnt from past mistakes. In contrast the Conservatives are a party of the future, had learnt from recent history and would build a budget surplus to prevent future economic problems becoming crises. The cost of living crisis that Labour focused on is inseparable from the debt crisis they created. The economy was recovering but there is still a long way to go. It was one of the least triumphalist conference speeches from a party leader I have heard in 40 years observing them.
The need for a Coalition was unavoidable in 2010 but Mr Cameron called on his party to work hard to win an absolute majority to finish what had been started. That is a tall order given the effects of austerity and the strategic blunder of the same-sex marriage legislation. Support for UKIP may have already peaked but persuading traditional Tories to remain loyal and floating voters to give the Conservatives time to complete the recovery will call for action to help those struggling to make ends meet and evidence that the Conservatives genuinely want opportunity for all. That is the only way to offer hope for the future.