Kieron O'Hara is a senior research fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton. This Platform piece is a version of a paper that Dr O'Hara presented at The Centre for British Politics' recent conference on Cameron's Conservatives. It is the second of a number of papers we are publishing from the conference.
David Cameron has shown remarkable flair in driving the political agenda. As the Conservatives had little hope of making a splash in the Glasgow East by-election in July 2008, one might have thought that his speech kicking off their campaign would be an irrelevance. Far from it: Cameron’s remarks were widely reported and discussed.
Most of the speech, on ‘broken Britain’, focused on well-known aspects of Conservative family, crime and welfare policy. But the last few minutes dwelt on a new theme – personal responsibility. This passage was often misreported, sometimes for satirical effect, as an attack on fat people; actually, Cameron spelt out the connection between personal choice and risk. “We talk about people being ‘at risk of obesity’ instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise. … Social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.” Politicians, and wider society, had avoided expressing this truism for fear of causing offence.
The response was remarkable. Nick Clegg demanded an apology, while Cameron’s greatest critic Simon Heffer applauded. ConservativeHome.com’s immediate reaction was extremely positive. Most of the press agreed that it was a bold new step. A YouGov poll taken a few days later showed overwhelming public support. The Conservatives themselves did not improve their share of the vote in Glasgow East, but finished a creditable third.
The speech was a departure from previous rhetoric. Cameron generally talks in social rather than personal terms, focusing on parental responsibilities and corporate social responsibility in allowing flexible family-friendly work practices. This contradicted some things in early speeches. In 2006, during the ‘brand decontamination’ phase, he had claimed that “we’re always telling people to be more responsible,” while in 2008, this had shifted to “we [refuse] to make judgments about what is good and bad behaviour.” His early discussions of youth crime tried to shift the focus from the youths themselves to poor parenting. His speeches of 2007 moved back to more familiar Conservative territory, but the main themes were still social, a “social covenant” and a “framework of incentives to encourage civility.”