DAVID CAMERON was still an unknown political novice when he made the fateful journey to the North West exactly a decade ago to deliver that unscripted speech which would propel him to the Conservative leadership ahead of the more favoured David Davis.
Fast forward 10 years and Mr Cameron returns to the North West this weekend – Manchester rather than Blackpool is the Tory conference venue – basking in the glory of heading the first majority Conservative government in 18 years after confounding both the opinion polls and his party’s pessimists.
Even though this is a Prime Minister who will be keen to focus on the future while he still has authority to do so – he plans to step down before the next election – Mr Cameron’s personal and political transformation since 2005 has been remarkable.
Like all successful politicians, and in echoes of Margaret Thatcher coming from nowhere in 1975 to win the leadership, luck was on his side initially. He had the good fortune that his pitch to the party faithful came after Mr Davis, the Haltemprice and Howden MP delivered a wooden address which failed to captivate the party faithful despite the then Shadow Home Secretary making a virtue of his working class upbringing by evoking the spirit of Britain’s wartime leader.
“I was drawn into politics by Churchill’s dream of a Britain in which ‘there is a limit beneath which no man may fall, but no limit to which any man might rise’. And that dream still inspires me today,” proclaimed Mr Davis . Yet his spiky relationship with some members of the media proved fateful – ‘get Davis’ was the instant conclusion of a vengeful commentariat.
Yet, looking back at the text of the two speeches with the benefit of hindsight, Mr Cameron’s oration only stands out because it was delivered without notes and from the heart.
It did not shy away from the fact that the Tories had been defeated in 2005 “by a government that won fewer votes than any in history”, but its uplifting delivery gave the audience – both in the downtrodden conference hall and the country at large – renewed reason to be proud of Conservative values.
He said he “joined this party” because he loved his country, believed in freedom and valued aspiration. “This party, the Conservative party, is the only party that wants everybody to be a somebody – a doer, not a done-for,” declared the Tory aspirant.
Note the phraseology. The central themes – aspiration, social mobility and endeavour – were also at the heart of the Churchillian cry made by Mr Davis, but they were not spoken with the same conviction and plausibility. While a lacklustre Mr Davis was perceived as offering “more of the same” following a decade or more of Tory turmoil, the young pretender was perceived, despite his privileged upbringing, as being a leader as slick as Tony Blair, and that was the primary consideration.
Why does this matter? Even though politics has become more fragmented, communication – and the coherence of the central message – does matter. It’s no coincidence that MrsThatcher, Mr Blair and Mr Cameron all became gifted orators. They also had the confidence to trust their convictions.
They were also prepared to withstand fierce opposition from within their own ranks. All three, plus John Major in 1992, had the ability to broaden their party’s appeal. Contrast this with William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard for the Tories – or Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, and now Jeremy Corbyn, for Labour. Elections are won from the centre ground, and by the party most trustworthy on the economy.
And it takes time to build trust. Not only did Mr Cameron had to withstand Mr Brown’s supposed “clunking fist” and the Labour leader’s assertion that the great financial crisis of 2007-08 was no time for a “political novice”, but this is probably the first party conference since 2005 in which he will not have to justify himself to his party. At present, it is hard to envisage anyone else being up to the job of Prime Minister. The Tories might be the natural party of government, but there are never any guarantees in politics.
Yet it is also important that the Tories, understandably gleeful at Labour’s lurch to the left, do not become arrogant – or smug. Mr Cameron’s majority in the Commons is only a slender one, and his party can no longer blame the Lib Dems for failures.
There are many challenges ahead, not least over the NHS staffing crisis, Europe’s refugee crisis and wider policy towards the Middle East, the totemic referendum on EU membership, Scottish independence and the next tranche of public sector cuts. Mr Cameron will need to retain the confidence of the quiet Conservatives who entrusted him on May 7.
But there’s another critical issue – the North. David Cameron’s predecessor, Michael Howard said in 2004 that the Conservatives could win back power without increasing its share of the vote in counties like Yorkshire. He was wrong.
It is why Mr Cameron visited Shipley at the end of May 2010 to promise to narrow the North-South divide, a policy speech that was the precursor to the so-called Northern Powerhouse. And it explained his promise, on the steps of 10 Downing Street, to preside over a ‘One Nation’ government.
Yet these pronouncements, delivered sincerely, sound hollow to those who believe the Northern Powerhouse amounts to little more than ‘jam tomorrow’ following a succession of setbacks culminating in the mothballing of Teesside’s steel plant with the loss of 1,700 jobs.
Actions speak louder than words. If he succeeds in putting the North at the vanguard of a new era of conservatism, he will go down in history as one of his party’s great leaders. If he fails, he will be remembered as a leader who put style before substance.
It’s so fundamental that he should heed these words which were also spoken at the Tory conference in 2005. “For us, government is a means; it isn’t an end in itself. It’s the means: to liberate those locked into dependence, to give a voice to those whose voices go unheard, and to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. We shouldn’t want power on any other terms.”
Who said them? David Davis, the man David Cameron beat to the leadership.