Cameron’s conference speech: Cabinet reactions

It was one of David Cameron's gravest, most serious speeches as Conservative party leader. The country's austerity drive is now set to continue well beyond the next general election, and later this year the coalition is expected to unveil further public spending cuts. As Cameron said, these are tough times; a message echoed by the Cabinet ministers I spoke to in the conference centre immediately after his speech.

"These are very serious times," Eric Pickles, the communities and local government secretary says. He has been merciless in passing on funding cuts of 26% for local authorities, but stands firm by the prime minister's message. "These are difficult times for the nation and I think people need to understand why we're doing it. We're getting the deficit down so we can ensure for our kids and for our kids' kids there is going to be a nation here that will prosper and hold fast." Perhaps the PM's speech may even have made these ministers feel better about the process. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, has been saving as much on paperclips as he possibly can over the last two-and-a-half years. "We're a serious country in a serious situation," he said, "facing huge challenges but confident we can meet them."

Britain's place in the world is at stake, the prime minister seemed to be saying, and although "confident", as Maude put it, there can be no guarantee that the UK will emerge as one of the 'winners' from the current bleak situation. "This is about Britain meeting the challenges we face in the world," Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, told me. "We share the concerns of the public about poverty, jobs and the need to do better in education, but we're bringing Conservative principles to solve those problems."

As a former party chairman, Pickles will have been relieved that Cameron focused his speech so closely on Conservative values – especially in the areas of education and welfare.  "I think it's immensely important for the party that we do not take for granted that people know we have always stood on the side of people who want to strive," he said. Maude added: "It was for the country. But the Conservative party needs to hear the argument, and he set that up brilliantly in a way that was uplifting and upbeat, and optimistic and enthusiastic. The party will have gone away with a spring in its step."

Cameron did not shy away from addressing his own political identity, talking about his late father and late son. The emotion which imbued much of his speech, when talking about the pride and perils faced by Britain, were very closely related to those he projected on to his family. "A leader needs to set out where they personally stand, where the influences that shape their views on life come from," Grayling said. "I think what David Cameron was saying today I want to bring the principles that underlie Conservatism in this country to bear to help people in our deprived communities, the poorest in society."

"These days, people need to see who politicians are," Maude agreed. "People need to know where he's come from and what's formed him."

The most experienced member of the Cabinet, who has heard a fair few leader's speeches in his time, was prepared to dole out a few words of praise himself. Good to know that Ken Clarke isn't taking his demotion in last month's reshuffle to heart.

"It was pretty impressive," he mused. "It was worth listening to as a speech, even allowing for the context of a party conference. It had serious content."