The Conservative party conference this year was quieter than usual. Whilst perhaps this is understandable mid-term, it reflected the fact that there is little good news and rising disquiet within the Party about its direction and performance.
Whilst the coalition “love in” with the Liberal Democrats has always largely been confined to the leadership, it was notable how delegates were far more uneasy than they have been previously over the partnership. There was palpable concern that the Lib Dems have been afforded too many public victories and the Tories are now whipping boys for unpopular policies and public concern over a lack of economic progress. This is not to say that the mood of conference was doom and gloom – but there was a sense of what might be best described as tense uncertainty.
There were moments when this was lifted and the delegates appeared to return to the positive and optimistic mood that dominated when the party was last in Birmingham two years ago – just after the election. Boris Johnson’s speech went down a storm, and there was a relief amongst the leadership that the Mayor stopped short of calling the Prime Minister anything more than “a broom”.
Cameron himself also seemed relieved; something demonstrated by his over-eagerness to be seen to be enjoying Boris’s address. This almost caused him problems when he threw his head so far back to laugh at one of the Mayor’s jokes that he nearly reverse head-butted a young female Party member sat behind. The combination of Boris, blonde and blood would probably not have worked well for Cameron – although the press and the writers of The Thick of It would have undoubtedly had a field day.
The Prime Minister’s speech itself was always going to be tough given the economic situation. “It’s worse than we thought and it’s taking longer” he commented. But, he continued, “the plan is still working”. Despite the applause, delegates seemed unsure at the start. “Over one million jobs have been created” the Prime Minister reassured. The hall seemed to wonder how.
There were some rather good sound bites: “Labour is a party of one notion [not one nation] – borrowing” went down brilliantly, as did a focus on entrepreneurship and aspiration – positing the Conservatives as not the party of the better off, but “the party of the want-to-be better off”. The reality was that the Prime Minister had few, if any, tasty morsels to give his audience. Abu Hamza was one around which everyone seemed to unite but others trotted out such as the international development budget and the NHS were met with raised eyebrows.
There was a direct appeal to the twenty-something demographic trying to get on the housing ladder that the Conservatives were the party that stood for their hopes and would stand by them and assist them in their struggle. There were olive branches to the hard working middle class family in the suburbs who have upgraded their Mondeo for a BMW three series, that their efforts would be rewarded through less tax and that those people scrounging off the benefits system would be made to work. There was also a rebuttal to those who believe that the Tories are the party of the rich, with the argument that the well-off will pay a greater share of tax than they did under Labour.
While at times his speech seemed slightly disjointed and flat, Cameron ended well. The Prime Minister successfully echoed Thatcher with his focus on strivers and his desire to create an ‘Aspiration Nation’, while at the same time hammering Ed Miliband in a scathing riposte of his claims about the PM’s tax situation.
Unlike Ed Miliband’s speech, Cameron’s performance was not a blockbuster. But while the Labour leader is now widely seen as being able to compete with the PM, Cameron’s speech demonstrated that Miliband still has some way to go to beat him.