Conservative Party Conference Lexcomm
Next week in Manchester, the Conservative Party will set out a post-austerity agenda with the slogan ‘Leadership for a better future’. The Conservatives enjoy a healthy lead on economic competence over Labour but party strategists are acutely aware of the need to progress from ‘deficit fixers’ to ‘growth creators’ if the party is to retain its lead on this crucial electoral issue.
Media interest will lie in spotting the dissonance between the hall and the fringe. On the conference floor expect coalition discipline, we will see none of the backbiting that prevailed at the Lib Dem conference. But frustrations with Coalition partners will be voiced on the fringe. Backbenchers and activists see their Liberal Democrat partners as the real obstacle to the pursuit of growth, especially on taxation.
While Chancellor George Osborne would dearly wish to announce the abolition of the 50p tax rate in his speech on Monday, coalition politics and fiscal pressures will prevent him from repeating his inheritance tax flourish of 2007. Activists will have to make do with a full blooded assault on Labour’s economic record instead.
EUROPE TO DOMINATE (ON THE FRINGE)
Rueful self-righteousness will be the dominant sentiment regarding the euro crisis, talk of which will no doubt dominate the conference. Delegates, including many MPs, will rage against an EU Tobin tax, proposed this week by Commission President, José Manuel Barroso. This tax on transactions is perceived by some in the Conservative party as being potentially ruinous for the City and the proposal has been swiftly opposed by the Treasury. Away from the euro crisis, the Commission’s ruling that the UK is discriminatory in not allowing EU nationals to claim the same benefits as UK citizens was met with a staunch response from Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, this morning.
Indeed, it is quite possible that Europe, namely the potential default of the Greek economy and the failure of the euro, will overshadow everything else. This presents a useful opportunity for David Cameron to show his statesmanlike qualities and float above the usual conference knock-about. It will be interesting to see how much of the Prime Minister’s flagship speech on Wednesday is devoted to international affairs.
GUARDING AGAINST COMPLACENCY
Many in the Conservative Party believe they cannot fail while Ed Miliband is their principle opponent but wiser heads are aware that the Government is traversing an economic minefield. Labour will snipe from the sidelines and further bad news on the economy, especially if it cannot be attributed to international factors, will result in the electorate punishing the Conservatives in 2015. A few eye-catching, if relatively inexpensive, policy announcements will be delivered at conference, along the lines of the consultation on the increase in the speed limit and extra funding for weekly bin collections that have been trailed this week.
Recent research published by Lord Ashcroft revealed a potential fault line for Cameron. While he is streets ahead in terms of credibility and leadership ability, he struggles to demonstrate empathy with the wider public during these difficult times. Some swing voters perceive him to be detached from ’ordinary people’s lives’, which he will try to address in his speech.
Generally most effective when under pressure, Cameron has little to live up to following Clegg’s solid but workmanlike performance and Miliband’s less than successful speech this week. Cameron also has the significant advantage of a united party, meaning he can focus his message almost entirely on the audience outside the conference hall. He will leave the bad news to Chancellor George Osborne, Cameron will deliver the vision of a ‘better tomorrow’.
The Prime Minister also has to demonstrate that he understands widespread and growing concerns about living standards and rising prices, particularly in relation to energy prices which was a key theme at both the Labour and Liberal Democrat conferences.
STRENGTHENING CORE VALUES
As well as the economy, there will be a focus on ‘values’, with party strategists keen to cement their advantage on traditional Tory strengths such as welfare, immigration and crime.
Cuts to police budgets will be high up the agenda following the summer riots. Home Secretary, Theresa May, will be well aware that her opposite number, Yvette Cooper, was widely regarded as having delivered the best speech at the Labour Party Conference. She also had one of the few concrete announcements, the well received review of policing led by former Met Commissioner John Stevens. The Home Secretary has been noticeably absent from the debate on the riots and she needs a bold and convincing narrative to demonstrate that she understands their causes and consequences, and is leading the Coalition’s response.
The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, will give a staunch defence of the flagship universal benefits policy which is vitally important to the Coalition’s ambitions to reform the UK’s welfare system. It is the one area where there is clear blue water between the Coalition and the Labour Party. Ed Miliband’s recent socially conservative proposal of awarding social housing on the basis of contribution to society shows that Labour is keen to engage on Conservative territory.
Andrew Lansley will hope for a quiet conference after a turbulent year. Not generally a favourite of conference, many in the party question his management of the health reforms but respect him for making it through the battle with the Liberal Democrats.
ON THE PATH TO MAY 2012…AND BEYOND
Boris Johnson will make a fleeting visit, arriving on Monday evening for his rally. He will use his conference speech on Tuesday morning to fire up Conservative activists in his last appearance before the London Mayoral election next May. As usual he will take a liberal approach to party discipline and he is likely to play to the grassroots, airing their concerns over the 50p tax rate, police cuts and Europe.
The fringe will provide an opportunity to hear from the new intake. Well aware that opportunities for promotion are severely limited by the politics of the Coalition and Cameron’s wise decision to avoid reshuffles, they are thinking ahead to 2015. Five new MPs, including David Davis’s former special advisor, Dominic Raab, have recently published After the Coalition with policies based around the idea of personal responsibility.
While a number of MPs are expected to avoid conference altogether, or just attend for a day or two, the new intake will use the opportunity to engage in healthy debate about the future of the party. A future, it must be noted, the vast majority agree is under David Cameron.
CONSERVATIVE PARTY CONFERENCE DIARY
• William Hague will deliver a barnstorming speech on the opening day at 4.30pm.
• Chancellor George Osborne will address conference at around 11.30am.
• Steve Richards interviews Cabinet Office Minister and leading proponent of ‘nudge’ theory and the Big Society, Francis Maude at 5.30pm.
• Mayor Boris Johnson addresses the hall at 10am.
• The SMF have invited an unlikely triumvirate of Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander; Cabinet Office Minister, Oliver Letwin; and the General Secretary of the TUC,Brendan Barber to discuss growth at 7.30pm.
• David Cameron’s speech will bring conference to a close at 2.30pm
LOOK OUT FOR…
– Fast gaining party grandee status, Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who will upstage party chair Sayeeda Warsi on the first day of conference with a keynote address to the hall.
– Eric Pickles, generally a conference favourite, will face a trickier time than usual. The grassroots are deeply concerned about the reforms to the planning system and the National Trust’s campaign has been very successful in agitating Telegraph readers. The extra funding for bin collections may go some way in placating local councillors at conference.
– Economic Secretary Justine Greening is widely regarded as one of the best performers at her level and will be deployed to defend the Government’s economic record and attack Ed Balls and Labour.
LABOUR PARTY CONFERENCE HIGHS AND LOWS
• Yvette Cooper delivered the best speech of the week, leading many commentators to anoint her leader in waiting.
• Her husband, Ed Balls, also had a good conference. His speech was typically robust and his decision to attend just the one ‘In Conversation’ fringe event enabled him to show his human side and left him plenty of time for media appearances.
• Shadow Defence Secretary, Jim Murphy, delivered a well received speech without notes. In declining the opportunity to contest the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party he remains in contention for the main job if it becomes available.
• Ed Miliband’s keynote speech was not the turning point he needed. Cut off in his prime by a technical fault, he raised the heckles of the business community with his attack on the ‘predators’. The kindest reviewers labelled it a speech worthy of a Progress rally.
• Miliband’s pronouncement that he is not Tony Blair led to boos at the name of the party’s most successful leader from some sections of the hall. This will play badly with centrist floating voters who Blair so successfully wooed.
• Shadow Culture Secretary, Ivan Lewis, got into a pickle over his register of journalists policy. Swiftly shot down by the press and the leadership team, Lewis had to issue a clarification on Twitter.