Cameron's speech was obviously technically great and I don't doubt his sincerity, but it left me wondering what has happened to any idea beyond presentational of modernising the Tories?
Unlike New Labour which was a fundamental reappraisal of the ideological direction of the party and actually had buy in from at least a strong minority of party activists and a majority of the PLP, the Tory modernisation scheme seems limited to a few nods to environmentalism (even those have now gone missing from Cameron's speeches), a curbing of the worst bigotry of the past, and a leader who has clearly studied the Tony Blair guide to public presentation.
Cameron's speech and its context were as though Blair had got up to speak at his final pre-1997 conference without having abolished Clause IV (in the Tory case the analogous sacred cow is their anti-European stance) and made a speech aimed firmly at the prejudices of his core vote without confronting the party and asking it to change at all, following his Shadow Chancellor having outlined a repeat, with bells on, of their early 1980s economic strategy. It's as though Blair in 1996 had just marched his MEPs out of the mainstream Party of European Socialists to join the communist group in the European Parliament.
Cameron's parliamentary candidates are not modernisers, most of them are from the Tory right. His activists and members have certainly not changed (a nauseating mix of paranoid Daily Mail readers and the very, very posh defending their class privileges if the conference delegates who spoke were anything to go by), as unlike New Labour pre-1997 the party membership has slumped not doubled. The traditional pro-European Tory left such as the Tory Reform Group remain marginalised and bitter about the political cross-dressing of former Thatcherite Special Advisers pretending to be moderates without renouncing their 1980s vintage economic and European policies. Right-wing headbangers like Daniel Hannan are lionised and promoted and get to give the keynote speech at spring conference, not expelled as Militant were when Labour modernised.
I heard nothing today from Cameron that Thatcher or Major could not have said. Nothing that indicated any lessons learned from the 1979-1997 period. No apology for past mistakes or renunciation of past policies. No indication that "Modern Conservatism" is any different ideologically or in policy from its previous incarnations. Nothing to indicate the Tories have changed at all - just that they hope 12 years in opposition has dulled memories of their last period in power.
Given what those of us old enough to remember Thatcher and Major know of their record then, the failure of Cameron to in any way move his party on and renounce its past as "Old Tory" is warning enough of what he would be like in Government. Read in conjunction with Osborne's specifically Thatcherite prescriptions on the economy and public spending, we know where they are headed: back to the future.
Cameron's sudden discovery of poverty as an issue ("don’t you dare lecture us about poverty... I learnt all about it at Eton and in the Bullingdon Club") rings hollow when he and Osborne are proposing policies that would deepen the recession, increase poverty and inequality and replicate all the worst aspects of the regime of the woman who inspired him to come into politics, Margaret Thatcher.