Page last updated at 16:05 GMT, Thursday, 8 October 2009 17:05 UK

Cameron tackles 'why me' question

By Ben Wright,
Political correspondent, BBC News, Conservative conference

David and Samantha Cameron
The Tory leader sought to present himself as a future PM

"Why us, why now, why me?"

They are the questions David Cameron and his party have tried to answer this week.

From the Tory leader came a very personal explanation about why he's in politics and why he wants power.

He left the cheering hall to a thumping rendition of "I'm a Believer" after telling the conference that he wants every child to have the chances he had.

His personal experience was woven into the politics.

He pledged to put Britain back on its feet and fix what he's dubbed the broken economy, the broken society and broken politics.

He condemned big government with a force that was reminiscent of a Republican Party convention.

But his political priorities couldn't have been further away. In a passage that will be re-played many times and will rile Labour, he angrily looked straight into the television camera lens and said it wasn't the "wicked Tories" who failed the poor but Labour.

Key themes

There were no new policies in his speech but it sewed up the key conference themes.

All week, the giant screen behind the podium has shown computerised clouds drifting across the sky and it has been a bit like a gloomy afternoon in the garden waiting for the sun to come out, a sense stoked by the speeches from the stage.

Ready for Change is the slogan that is plastered around their conference and all week would-be Cabinet ministers have been sketching out what that change might mean

It was right that the rain lashed Manchester when George Osborne made his economic forecast in the most important hour of the conference.

A theme running through most speeches and again on the fringe is that the state is a cumbersome, inefficient beast that needs to be cut back.

Under pressure for months to spell out how the Tories would cut the fiscal deficit, the shadow chancellor soberly spelt out what he'll do: Increase the state pension age sooner than Labour, freeze public sector wages and stop some middle class welfare payments.

Politically, it's a big gamble to be so candid and the Tories know it. Mr Osborne was careful to say that paying for the recession mustn't fall on the poor, so they'll be no reversal of the 50 pence top rate of income tax.

But his decision to keep the commitment to cut inheritance tax will ensure it's targeted by Labour from now until the election.

And George Osborne's speech was not the whole story.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies judged that it would only make a "dent" in the debt and both he and Alistair Darling have a lot more explaining to do.

Trailed as a policy-heavy week beforehand, many of the announcements were tweaks to existing plans.

But a theme running through most speeches and again on the fringe is that the state is a cumbersome, inefficient beast that needs to be cut back.

The Tories' education spokesman Michael Gove was one shadow minister who railed against the education system and what he called the regiments of bureaucrats and quangocrats at its core.

He also continued the theme of George Osborne's speech by saying it is the most in need who have been most let down by Labour.

While Labour last week stood up for the state, the Tories are now saying something very different.

It's the big divide. But getting rid of quangos and Whitehall waste is one thing.

Successive governments have ended up centralising power and expanding the state, even if they started with small-state intentions. Will the Tories be different? How will they do it? There is a lot we don't know.

This is a party trying to paint itself as the progressives of British politics and that is what David Cameron tried to drive home.

'Cautiously confident'

But one tune stayed the same and Europe is likely to dog the leadership until polling day.

The party base remains very Eurosceptic and David Cameron is having to send it coded messages about what it will do about the Lisbon Treaty if it's been implemented by the time of the next election.

Europe did not derail the conference but it lurks dangerously below the waterline and soon the Conservatives will have to say what "not letting matters rest" on the Treaty actually means.

So, the Tories leave Manchester with a cautiously confident sense of expectation.

Would-be Conservative ministers are not measuring up their new departmental curtains.

But they know that power is within their grasp and after this week there's a clearer idea of what they'd do with it.



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