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David Cameron Wants You To Think The Conservatives Are A Centrist Party

The prime minister used his speech at the Tory conference in Manchester to claim that social justice and inequality are now Conservative issues.

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Paul Ellis / AFP / Getty Images

David Cameron has used his speech to the Conservative party conference in Manchester to make a pitch to centre-left Labour voters disillusioned with Jeremy Corbyn.

Borrowing heavily from the playbook of Tony Blair to stake his claim for the centre ground, the prime minister received applause from party members for raising socially liberal issues with which his party has traditionally struggled. Out went the emphasis on tough economic decisions, and in came references to the benefits of same-sex marriage, prison reform, and the aim of reducing inequality.

Although Cameron also included references to immigration controls, they were much more muted than home secretary Theresa May's full-blooded speech on the issue earlier in the week.

Afterwards, Cameron's aides resisted the temptation to accept suggestions that this was a speech aimed at people who voted for Blair.

"Listen to the speech and act as you wish" was as far as aides would go when asked if they would like centrist Labour voters to come and join the party.

In reality, Downing Street officials admitted they were delighted by what they claim is Cameron's chance to govern as a "modern compassionate Conservative" who can "concentrate on other areas" – implicitly declaring that the era of economic crisis is at an end.

They know how Blair won three elections for Labour from 1997 and believe Jeremy Corbyn's triumph in the Labour leadership race now gives the Tories an opportunity to emulate his predecessor's success.

As a result, Cameron softened his tone and told the conference that his second – and final – term as prime minister would be part of a "turnaround decade" with a focus on social issues.

"To make Britain greater, we need to tackle some deep social problems," he said. "Problems we only just made a start on, as we focused on the economic emergency that faced us. The scourge of poverty. The brick wall of blocked opportunity."

He said the Conservatives must become "the party of the fair chance; the party of the equal shot, the party that doesn't care where you come from, but only where you're going, us, the Conservatives. I want us to end discrimination and finish the fight for real equality in our country today."

Echoing his speech outside Downing Street on the morning after the general election in May, Cameron again reclaimed the "One Nation" slogan, an old Tory rhetorical device that Labour had adopted under Ed Miliband's leadership.

Michael Dugher, a member of Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet, said on Twitter that he recognised the tactics from watching Blair reach across the political divide in the 1990s.

@stephenkb similarly TB: left wing stuff (min wage, statutory TU recognition etc) but with centre-right language so voters not scared away.

But the reality of the Conservative policies may be different from the centrist rhetoric. One of the announcements in his speech was the decision to redefine affordable housing as including homes available to buy outright. Housing charities say these will still be out of reach for many Britons and will reduce the availability of new affordable rented accommodation.

Cameron's speech also made no mention of the forthcoming tax credit cuts, which are expected to impact on the income of low-earners and have been causing growing disquiet among some senior Tories, such as David Willetts and Boris Johnson.

Instead, the prime minister focused on racism and inequality in the UK: "Do you know that in our country today, even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names?

"This is a true story. One young black girl had to change her name to Elizabeth before she got any calls to interviews. That, in 21st-century Britain, is disgraceful."

Aides said afterwards there were no plans to introduce changes to force employers to consider CVs anonymously, but said the prime minister hoped to push a change in the culture by mentioning the issue.

Cameron also insisted that online discussion, where left-wing voices often rise to the top, is out-of-step with most ordinary voters: "The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing."

He also announced that the government will require faith schools to be inspected, with a pledge to stop the "passive tolerance" of institutions that promote Islamist ideas, a move controversial with some Muslims.

Cameron did allow himself one major attack the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn: "You only need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy' ... My friends – we cannot let that man inflict his security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating ideology on the country we love."

And he also made a joke at the expense of Richard Murphy, the man behind many of Jeremy Corbyn's economic policies. "He's written a book called The Joy of Tax. I've got it." Cameron said. "I took it home to show Samantha – it's got 64 positions and none of them work."

Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Jim Waterson at jim.waterson@buzzfeed.com.

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