Decontaminating the brand

The importance of Cameron's latest speech is what it tells us about the success of the last two years.

For two years David Cameron has driven his critics - including Lord Tebbit, who served in Margaret Thatcher's cabinets, The Daily Telegraph and Pejman Yousefzadeh at RedState - crazy. They genuinely worry that he is selling out the history and traditions of one of the greatest parties in the history of representative democracy. I have never believed that, and I think this speech goes a long way to justifying Cameron's strategy.

The key element of the strategy was to decontaminate the brand. The problem was that the Conservative Party had become so unpopular no policy prescription could improve things. If the Conservatives declared for peace and love, Conservative polls ratings would stay the same, but peace and love would take nosedive.

Tax cuts remained popular in theory, but if tax cuts were advocated by Conservatives everyone assumed they would only apply to the rich. School choice was interpreted as being a way of subsidising rich people who used the private sector. Any reference to crime or immigration was taken as evidence of racism. Any reference to reforming public services was seen as being indistinguishable from cuts, privatisation, and a heartless disregard not just for the poor but for all 'ordinary people'.

That speech, and the media reaction to it, convinces me that decontamination of the brand is now complete. Cameron was talking about school choice and, even more radically, about allowing new schools to enter the market which will get a capitation fee from the government. He didn't use the v-word, but it is exactly what he was describing. He made it clear that voluntary, religious and for-profit organisations will all be able to participate.

He talked about reform in healthcare - though it is not fully clear to me what he meant. The top-down target culture is crazy, but there does need to be some form of accountability, and I am not sure where he proposes it should be.

He talked about support for the family and recognising that broken families simply do not succeed as well as functioning families. If any Conservative had said that before - and not just during the opposition years, but back when we were popular - it would have been seen as 'bashing' single mothers. Cameron made it sound as though we wanted to help, not hinder, their efforts to provide a decent upbringing for their children. More importantly - as a measure of Cameron's achievements - that is not just what he said, it is what people heard.

There are, of course, no easy answers to the problems he set out. Take the 'living apart together' issue. It is, indeed, madness, that a father who is working cannot live with the mother of his children because she would lose benefit if he moved in with her. But it would be equally crazy to provide benefit to all non-working parents even when the other parent has a good income. Perhaps the involvement of voluntary organisations is part of the answer. Civil servants have rule books to replace judgement. A voluntary organisation can say 'yes' to some people on the grounds that a grant makes sense in one set of circumstances and 'no' when another person makes an application on similar, but slightly different grounds.

While there is no simple solution to the policy problems, the key breakthrough is this: now the Conservatives have earned the right to be heard. There is a political debate again in Britain. And the vacuousness of Labour policy can be exposed.

And having earned the right to be heard Cameron has counfounded those who assumed he would abandon Conservative thinking by using it to argue for tax cuts and school choice. On the second point, I confess to being pleasantly surprised.

For the first time since at least 1992 I can say two things simultaneously about the next election: The Conservatives can win and the Conservatives deserve to win.

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