Tipping the Cornish sand from his trainers, David Cameron returns to his desk in Downing Street this week to start thinking seriously about the new political year and his forthcoming speech to the Conservative Party conference.
His aides have already started work on the draft – and after the riots, he needs a show-stopper. Cameron also knows, courtesy of leaked internal documents, that Labour has concluded that the best way to attack him is to depict him as a traditional Right-winger who has abandoned the centre ground.
So when he addresses the party faithful in Manchester in a few weeks' time, what should he say? What message does he want to get across, not just to activists but the country at large?
Cameron starts with a couple of big advantages which he needs to press home, as well as a major problem that he needs to fix. His first advantage is that the Right's idea of what constitutes fairness is closer to what the voters think than the Left's is. Polls show that two thirds of people believe that fairness is a matter of getting what you deserve. Only a quarter think fairness is about equality. The idea of something-for-something has a lot of support in Britain, and this is strongly reflected in everything from attitudes to welfare reform to the response to the riots. The challenge for Cameron is to come up with more policies that show that he is on the side of "the workers, not the shirkers".
The PM's other advantage is on the economy. Although Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, promised not to oppose every cut, it is hard to point to a single measure to control spending that he does support. That may be popular in the short term; but, as in 1992, the Coalition will invoke threats of a "Labour tax bombshell" at the next election, probably with the same impact it had on Neil Kinnock's hopes of the premiership. To press this point home, the PM needs to turn the deficit into a question of fairness: is it fair to burden our children with debt, so that we can put off difficult reforms today?
But Cameron's speech also needs to deal with the Tories' big problem. It is the reason why the Conservative Party hasn't won an election outright since 1992. While he modernised the party enough to become PM – quite an achievement, given the toxic reputation it had developed – it hasn't shaken off the perception that it is a "party for the rich". It has made more progress on the social than on the economic dimension of politics. In that sense, Tory modernisation is still a job half done.
The polls bear this out. A recent YouGov survey showed that even Tory voters think the party is closer to "the rich" than the middle classes. Labour is seen as closer to the middle classes than the Conservatives are to the working classes. A vast polling exercise carried out by Lord Ashcroft a few months ago came to the same conclusion. Linked to this, the party is also seen as southern. But the battleground seats that Cameron needs to win at the next election are in urban areas in the North and the Midlands, areas which are more affected
by the reining in of public spending.
If he is going to avoid suffering from "northern discomfort", Cameron's speech needs to mark the start of a relentless focus on gritty, "squeezed middle" voters, particularly those outside the South. So, what policies could he adopt to show that he has something to offer normal working people? He could start with household bills and the cost of living. An increasingly large part of our energy bills is the result of green policies. Cameron shouldn't dump the green agenda, but he can make it far less expensive and use the savings to lower our bills.
For most people, their biggest monthly outgoing is rent or mortgage repayments. These are eased by getting the deficit under control because that holds down interest rates. But the Government is unlikely to get much of the credit for this. More housebuilding is a good policy, particularly for younger voters; but the Government needs to go further. It should look at an approach common to many European countries where people have the right to build their own home. They can buy a cheap allotment with planning permission and are thereby able to commission or construct affordable houses. A "right to build" could rival Mrs Thatcher's "right to buy".
Another key ambition must be to reduce unemployment. It is the central issue in politics and crucial for the squeezed middle. Welfare reform is a big part of the solution and this debate also highlights the differences between the Left and Right over what fairness means. Voters support schemes that require those on benefits for long periods to work for their dole. Resentment against those who want something for nothing is strongest among those who work hard on low incomes.
Housing is another area where Tory notions of fairness strike a chord. One in six families lives in social housing and a million and a half people are on the waiting list because property prices and rents have risen so much. But voters – including those in social housing – don't think people should be offered expensive council properties. Some inner London boroughs own properties worth more than £1 million; as they become vacant, they should be sold off and the proceeds used to build far more social housing in less expensive areas.
Waiting list rules could prioritise those on low incomes who work. Again, supporting those trying to help themselves.
A final area for Cameron to consider afresh is law and order. The people who are most likely to suffer from crime and anti-social behaviour are those on lower incomes, which is why three quarters of working-class voters think society is "broken", while only 62 per cent of middle-class people do. Cameron needs to show that he is not just tough on crime but also smart on crime. That means getting value for money out of the police, for example by introducing solo patrolling, rather than patrols in pairs. It also means sorting out prisons. At present, the inmates of an average jail consume £1 million of drugs each year. A crackdown is long overdue. Getting prisoners working would raise revenue for more prison places and improve rehabilitation. Community sentences, half of which aren't even completed, also need replacing with more effective punishments.
When Disraeli died, one obituary said that he had carved out a new Conservative working class in the same way "the sculptor perceives the angel prisoned in a block of marble". As the polls, show, there are plenty of potential voters who might be willing to switch to the modern Tories if they weren't put off by a belief that the party is not for them. Like Disraeli, Cameron can win them over – but to do so, he must be far bolder.