By Andrew Woodcock, Press Association Political Staff
Theresa May has declared the age of austerity over with a message to voters that “there are better days ahead”.
In her crucial keynote speech to the Conservative conference in Birmingham, Mrs May said next year’s post-Brexit Spending Rreview will set out a programme of increased investment for public services, as a mark that the decade of cuts following the financial crash is coming to an end.
And she announced a new cancer strategy to increase early detection of the illness and save 55,000 lives a year by 2028, along with a ninth successive annual freeze in fuel duty.
Admitting that the housing market is “broken”, she announced she was lifting the cap on councils borrowing to fund new developments, with the aim of “building the homes this country needs”.
In a speech designed to rally her party behind her following a conference riven by differences over Brexit, Mrs May warned that squabbling over the details of EU withdrawal might mean “ending up with no Brexit at all”.
Standing firmly by the Chequers plan which was denounced by Boris Johnson as a “constitutional outrage”, Mrs May promised: “If we stick together and hold our nerve, I know we can get a deal that delivers for Britain.”
She made no mention of the former foreign secretary, who won thunderous applause from 1,500 activists on Tuesday as he called on her to “chuck” the Brexit plan agreed at her country residence in July.
But she delivered a stinging riposte to his reported “f*** business” comment, saying the business community should know that “there is a four-letter word to describe what we Conservatives want to do to you – it has a single syllable, it is of Anglo-Saxon derivation, it ends in the letter K. Back businesses.”
Less than an hour before taking the stage in Birmingham, Mrs May was hit by a call for her removal from former minister James Duddridge, who said she was “incapable” of providing the leadership Tories need.
But she did her best to appear carefree as she sashayed on to the stage to the Abba hit Dancing Queen – a reference to the much-shared video of her dancing on a trip to Africa – and joked about the coughing fit and collapsing stage backdrop which marred her calamitous conference speech in Manchester last year.
In an upbeat message to activists and voters, she declared: “If we come together, there is no limit to what we can achieve. Our future is in our hands.”
She launched a ferocious assault on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, describing the takeover of the party by the left as “a national tragedy” and his policies of nationalisation and shares for workers as “bogus solutions that would makes things worse”.
In a clear pitch for mainstream voters turned off by Mr Corbyn’s left-wing economic agenda and rows over anti-Semitism, she said she wanted the “decent, moderate and patriotic” Conservatives to be “a party for the whole country”.
She made a grab for traditionally Labour territory by saying that the NHS “embodies our principles as Conservatives” and boasting of the presence in the Tory front ranks of immigrant’s son Sajid Javid, former Barnardo’s girl Esther McVey and lesbian mother-to-be Ruth Davidson.
In the face of Labour’s appeal to those suffering from the effects of austerity, Mrs May said Tories must “defend free markets, because it is ordinary working people who benefit”.
But she acknowledged that, a decade after the 2008 crash, the after-effects were still being felt by many households.
“Some markets are still not working in the interests of ordinary people,” she said.
“Employment is up but too many people haven’t had a decent pay rise. The deficit is down but achieving that has been painful. And our economy is growing but some communities have been left behind.
“This is why some people still feel that our economy isn’t working for them.
“Our mission as Conservatives must be to show them that we can build an economy that does.”
She promised to “make markets work in the interests of ordinary people again”, citing Government initiatives to toughen corporate governance rules, provide protection for gig economy workers and cap energy prices.
And she warned she was ready to take further action against utility firms which punish loyal customers with higher prices.
Acknowledging voter weariness with belt-tightening, Mrs May said: “The British people need to know that the end is in sight.
“And our message to them must be this – We get it. We are not just a party to clean up a mess, we are the party to steer a course to a better future.”
To applause from activists, she said: “Sound finances are essential, but they are not the limit of our ambition.
“Because you made sacrifices, there are better days ahead.
“So when we’ve secured a good Brexit deal for Britain, at the spending review next year we will set out our approach for the future.
“Debt as a share of the economy will continue to go down, support for public services will go up.
“Because, a decade after the financial crash, people need to know that the austerity it led to is over and that their hard work has paid off”.”
Mrs May received a standing ovation as she concluded her 64-minute speech with an appeal to Tories: “Together, let’s build a better Britain.”