For months now, David Cameron and his government have been pursued around the ring. Chased by Labour and harassed by events they have often been caught on the ropes. Off-balance and out of position Cameron has struggled to respond to Labour’s jabs. No wonder he’s behind on points.

The Prime Minister’s speech to the Conservative party conference this morning was a counter-attack. Cameron has had enough of running; now he means to stand in the centre of the ring and trade blows with the opposition. It will be a rare old tear-up.

Those who say this was a speech delivered to his party, not his country are, I think, mistaken. This was Cameron’s clearest declaration of principle in years. A pugilistic defence of his ideas and his politics. This, he said, is the kind of Conservative I am and the brand of conservatism in which I believe. Let’s see if you’re strong enough to defeat it.

True, there was the usual talk of hard and difficult choices that were, as usual, left mysteriously unexplained. Nevertheless, there was some heft to this speech too. It was a reminder that Cameron’s political instincts are sharper than his critics – on both left and right – sometimes allow.

The sections on debt and the deficit (deliberately elided, as always) were, in truth, pretty average. But it was at least useful that, for once, Cameron made the argument in terms that the average citizen might understand: a 1% rise in interest rates, he said, would put £1,000 on the annual cost of a £100,000 mortgage.

Just as importantly, he decided to take on some of the more compelling – or at least apparently persuasive – arguments made against his government. That was both bold and, in its way, grown-up. Labour, he suggested, think we’re a bunch of heartless, privileged toffs who care nothing about the struggles of the typical Briton because we’re so out of touch we’ve no idea what those struggles even are, far less how they may be alleviated or made marginally more manageable. Well, he said, they can think that if they want but they’re wrong and here’s why. The effect was to offer a challenge: If you think you’re hard enough, Ed, come and have a go.

So the most successful parts of the speech were not the blather about international competitiveness (though that matters) but the defence of the government’s welfare and education reforms. The latter builds upon Labour’s own reforms and it is striking – and fortunate for the government – that Labour appears to have given up on those reforms, ceding the field to the Conservative party.

Not every school can be as good as Eton, but many schools can be better than they are at present. And Cameron was right, right, right to stress that the people who will benefit most from Michael Gove’s agenda are not the sharp-elbowed middle-classes but those who’ve been left behind, consigned to misery and failure by an education establishment far-too-riven with the soft bigotry of low expectations. It will take time and not every Free School or Academy will be a success but, little by little, this is a programme for extending and widening and deepening opportunity.

And that was the theme of the best parts of this speech. Welfare reform is not a heartless attempt to save money that would otherwise be spent on the least fortunate members of society; rather it is a moral necessity to assist those who most need assistance. (Again, the detail of implementation matters – and will neither be smooth nor victimless – but the general thrust is also important.)

Indeed, I cannot recall when Cameron last made such a positive case for the reforms his government is pursuing. Deficit reduction, welfare reform and educational revolution aren’t just matters pressed upon this government by circumstance but morally virtuous causes it would be pursuing even if the public finances were in a happier, rosier state. We do not do these things, he suggested, because there is no alternative to pain or retrenchment but because there is a moral virtue to these causes in and of themselves. This, from a right-of-centre perspective, was an overdue call to arms for compassionate conservatism.

Again, the means to these ends matter enormously too. But the point is that the Conservatives must first prove that the ends themselves are virtuous. Too often too many people doubt this. If you are not trusted on ends you will never be trusted on means. Cameron’s task was to rebut that argument. It struck me that he did so quite successfully.

Extending privilege and rewarding aspiration are necessary, even noble, objectives. All parties say they want to achieve this, of course, but Cameron was at least able to make a decent case for why conservative principles are those best placed to deliver these ambitions. This too was overdue.

So, importantly, was the streak of optimism running through this speech. The Olympics, of course, were a template for this: a reminder that, actually, Britain can still do some things rather well. There was a surprisingly upbeat tempo to this speech and only a churl would wonder if the constant stress on how spiffing Britain is covered up the nagging suspicion that perhaps Britain is done for.

If there remain tough choices and difficult times ahead there was, mercifully, some reason to suppose that the government thinks better days may yet lie ahead. We’ve had enough, frankly, of Broken Britain. And not before time.

Tags: Britain, Compassionate conservatism, Conservatives, David Cameron, Education, UK politics, Welfare reform