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There is always a debate over whether a party’s election campaign should “paint the sky blue” or “paint the sky black”. Conservatives do best when we are optimistic about the future, but it is not altogether straightforward. As Sunder Katwala of British Future said at a Policy Exchange meeting yesterday, people who are pessimistic and insecure don’t want to be offered more pessimism, but neither do they want to hear “isn’t globalisation exciting?” As Rick Nye of Populus observed, the party’s overall message has to be greater than the sum of its parts, while at the same time reflecting the various priorities of different groups of people. But, as I told the Today Programme, strategy is above my pay grade.

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One of the recurring themes in fringe meetings so far has been the lessons we can learn from the Liberal Party’s welcome victory in Australia. Several people have correctly remarked on the need to pick big, specific themes and repeat them, ignoring the boredom of the media. But the parallels only go so far. Don’t forget voting is compulsory in Australia – negative campaigning is bound to have more of an effect when you have to vote for (or against) somebody.

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Rising Tides, the new book from Liam Fox, sounds as though it will be worth a read. While most politicians’ books (he says) amount to “this is who I met, this is what I thought, wasn’t I wonderful?”, his is a study of what keeps world leaders awake at night. Not exactly Wodehouse if you’re looking for a bedtime chuckle, but a serious subject from a former Defence Secretary who knows the world leaders in question. Dr Fox is also shrewd on domestic questions, and the pointlessness of internal party feuding.

Though an “unreconstructed free-market Thatcherite Eurosceptic Atlanticist,” he recognises that “there’s no point having a crown without a Kingdom”: to be in government, Conservatives have to represent the country as it is now. If we don’t want coalitions with other parties we have to be a broad church ourselves. As a “Scotsman with an Irish name with an English constituency overlooking Wales,” he knows all about that sort of thing.

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Francis Maude is one of our most quietly radical ministers. He always found the description of politics as “the art of the possible” rather depressing, he says: “what makes politics exciting is making possible what is right”. His efforts to decentralise government have met inevitable resistance: “letting go of power from the centre is like letting go of chewing gum stuck to your hand”. He was also suspicious of the New Labour phrase “earned autonomy”, which just means “you’ve got to use your autonomy to do what we want”. What does he think about reviving the idea of more directly elected mayors? “I would just do it.” Surely not in places where they have just had a referendum and said no? “Well, probably not. That might look a bit tactless.”

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A tip from Iain Dale: if you see a journalist around the place, why not go and talk to them? If you don’t, he says, they will get their view of what is going on entirely from talking to each other. One year, he says, he followed a distinguished broadcaster for a whole day, at the end of which the star addressed the nation on “the mood of the conference” having spoken only to other reporters. From my own conversations, I sense the mood is more buoyant than at any time since the last election.

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