Conference diary 2015: Cameron looks to his legacy as Osborne seeks to own the centre ground

The Conservatives leave Manchester in a buoyant mood after their first conference in 18 years as the sole party of Government, writes Stephen Day of Burson-Marsteller

Cameron is the true political inheritor of Stanley Baldwin, argues Stephen Day
Cameron is the true political inheritor of Stanley Baldwin, argues Stephen Day
Arguably it was also their most united and purposeful gathering for many years. With the Liberal Democrats cast aside, and Labour embarked upon a self-indulgent sojourn to the wilder fringes of the left, the Tories have spotted what seems to be the political opportunity of a generation.

Both the Chancellor and the Prime Minister used their keynote addresses to conference this week as a means through which to position the Conservatives firmly on the centre ground, resisting calls from some quarters to use the political hiatus caused by their opponents leaving the field to move to the right.

For his part, as one cabinet minister explained to me over lunch, Osborne has calculated that with Cameron having pledged not to lead his party into the next election, the Chancellor’s best hope of succeeding his friend and neighbour is in an electoral scenario whereby a Tory victory looks a certainty. 

In a close fight, with a more electable Labour leader or a gloomier economic outlook, Osborne is not seen as an asset by many of his colleagues; the Chancellor is respected but unloved by the public. 

Osborne calculates that holding the centre ground is the best way to forge an unassailable lead in the polls and secure his place as front runner and ultimate successor.

The Prime Minister, now unfettered by such base considerations as winning elections, has instead set about securing his legacy and providing a positive vision for Great Britain beyond the economic imperative of his first coalition term. 

He appears to have taken to this task with alacrity and has, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, enlisted his party’s genuine enthusiasm for the task.

Yesterday’s speech was classic Cameron, and classically Conservative: an exposition of the virtues of the changes in society, reflected through the changing attitudes and faces of the Conservative Party itself.

He celebrated a new generation of Conservative MPs, the sons and daughters of immigrants, from every walk of life; achievements such as more women in the Cabinet than ever before; and marriage equal for all.  

He also launched a passionate defence of the Union, a rejection of further European integration and an excoriating attack on Labour’s new leader.

Framed in the language of security and the need to build a broader basis of economic success, inclusivity was Cameron’s theme. 

Devolution, investment, house building and a national living wage are his instruments of delivery at home; and a strong defence and compassion through aid abroad.

At a time when the clear divisions in our politics are more stark than they have been for a generation and having won a safety-first election to forge a majority from coalition, the Prime Minister has set himself the task of creating a nation at ease with itself in his final term. 

All of this is reminiscent of an earlier age when another moderate Conservative leader sought to build homes, broaden his party’s appeal to the centre and bolster the country’s defences against extremism at home and abroad.

As I have written here before, the Prime Minister is the true political inheritor of Stanley Baldwin; and this week’s conference is the hallmark of that legacy.

Stephen Day is managing director, public affairs, at Burson-Marsteller

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