The Leadership Race Is on but It Will Still Be Cameron's Britain; Conference Has Seen the Contenders Jostle for Position but for Now There's No Doubt Who's Really in Charge

The Evening Standard (London, England), October 7, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Leadership Race Is on but It Will Still Be Cameron's Britain; Conference Has Seen the Contenders Jostle for Position but for Now There's No Doubt Who's Really in Charge


Byline: Matthew d'Ancona

LIKE an alpha lion prowling back to the veldt to restore his primacy in the pride, David Cameron reminded his tribe in Manchester today that he was still very much in charge. The Prime Minister came to claim not just his party but an entire decade: the 2010s, he wanted us to know, will be his, as much as the Eighties were Margaret Thatcher's.

Yes, this conference will be remembered as the launch of the long leadership contest that will become official when Cameron announces his precise departure date. On Monday, George Osborne showed why he is now the front-runner to succeed his friend. Yesterday, Boris Johnson made his own pitch, needling the Chancellor with references to "the London agenda", "the theft of City Hall policies" and the "Wandsworth powerhouse". As the stakes rose, Home Secretary Theresa May tried to pump up the volume with a speech on immigration that was too abrasive and much too brazen in its populist plea for support. The activists liked it but it was not the speech of a prospective Prime Minister.

For all this jostling, Cameron has only himself to blame: when he announced in March that he would not seek a third term, he authorised a race for the succession that has only just begun. The PM's purpose today was to eclipse the speculation and to frame his intentions for a final term in Downing Street. His notion of the "turnaround decade" transformed an emergency task of economic repair into a much broader, grander mission of national recovery.

In 2009 Cameron warned of the coming Age of Austerity. Now that "we are moving into the light" he dares to promise the Great British Take-off. On Monday, Osborne pledged a mighty programme of infrastructure and construction. Today, his boss presented himself explicitly as the social reformer he has always aspired to be. A housing revolution for "Generation Rent", educational transformation, a prison system that works: the core message of economic security was unchanged but upon this foundation the PM proposes to build One Nation Conservatism. "For us", he said, "economic success that's not the finished article. It's the foundation on which we can build a better society."

Now that Labour has decided to take a spa break from reality, Cameron is planting the Tory standard squarely in the Centre-ground. It is hugely helpful that the Corbynistas though not the Labour leader himself describe all those who disagree with pure socialism as "Tories". What better recruitment drive could Cameron ask for? As I chaired last night's Guardian debate on the question: "Are the Conservatives the workers' party?", it struck me that Cameron's greatest achievement has been cultural. Such questions, which might once have seemed absurd, are now posed with perfect seriousness. As Lord Saatchi has taught us, if you want to understand politics, look first at who colonises the language.

Which is not to say that Cameron's blueprint will become reality with obliging smoothness. Europe will be a distraction until the referendum result is declared and, if Scotland is any guide, long afterwards, too. …

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