The pressure is on for David Cameron as he prepares for his make or break speech at the close of the Conservative Party conference today. And as he watched Ian Duncan Smith, chair of Conservative think tank the Centre for Social Justice, receive a three-minute standing ovation yesterday, he must have felt under even more pressure to avoid unfavourable comparisons with his predecessor and give the performance of a lifetime.
It is ironic that IDS, who was dubbed ‘the quiet man’ after a particularly lacklustre turn for his own speech as party leader at conference four years ago, received the most thunderous applause of the past three days.
What made his reception all the more remarkable is that he was not talking about law and order or immigration, but about the most disadvantaged people in society. He implored the audience to “stop walking by on the other side of the street” and praised the role of the voluntary sector in helping give those same people another chance in life.
The previous day Chris Grayling, the shadow work and pensions secretary, had spelt out the extent to which the Conservatives believe Britain is in meltdown, against a backdrop of dramatic newspaper headlines and images of run-down estates and burning cars.
It fell to Duncan Smith to set out the solution, using the findings from Breakthrough Britain, a report published by the Centre for Social Justice earlier this year. He emphasised that the think tank sees the sector as very much part of the solution and paid tribute to its pioneering work in the area by addressing charities directly.
“You are the champions, the ones who show us the way,” he said. “We are on your side.”
He went on to sing the praises of some of the individuals he has met in the sector, such as Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of the children’s charity Kids Company.
“They are the most inspirational people I have ever met in my life,” he enthused. “We need to stop lecturing charities and telling them what to do.”
Critics may argue that this was simply another cynical attempt to reinvent the Conservatives as the compassionate, caring party. But Duncan Smith spoke emotionally and completely without notes, so many observed that it was hard to doubt his sincerity.
The issue of social breakdown was a dominant and recurring theme of the conference. Figures from the sector were invited to talk about their experiences on the main stage and there were numerous fringe events around the theme, as well as two speeches from leading lights in the party.
All the signs indicate that the Conservatives’ commitment to "fixing broken society” and reaching out to the most disadvantaged will be as much of a defining policy of their General Election campaign as “education, education, education” was for Labour in 1997.
Duncan Smith told his rapt audience: “As much as Mrs Thatcher changed the economy, our duty now is to change society for the better."
Whether or not Cameron chooses the same theme to be the central focus of his hotly anticipated speech remains to be seen, but if he is seeking to inspire his party as much as Duncan Smith clearly did, it could be just the ticket.