The stage was set for a conference marked by a collective loss of Conservative confidence. The Conservatives have been ahead in the polls only fleetingly in the last year: Lord Ashcroft’s snapshot polling of marginal seats is chilling. UKIP takes votes from the Tories on the Right; the Liberal Democrats shed votes to Labour on the Left; the Conservatives are weak in the northern cities and among ethnic minorities – and the vote distribution favours Labour. As the Scottish referendum campaign reached its end and David Cameron issued his co-vow on more devolution, confidence in him and his Downing Street operation among Conservative MPs fell lower. Mark Reckless defected to UKIP on the eve of conference, following his old friend Douglas Carswell a few weeks earlier.
This didn’t happen. The Tories held their nerve in Birmingham this week. Why? Very simply, because most believe that with so unpredictable an election ahead, in which four main parties rather than two will slice up the vote, David Cameron still has a fighting chance of making it back to Downing Street. Wilder spirits talk of a last-minute, 1992-type swing to the Conservatives, in which Miliband meets the fate of Neil Kinnock. More sober ones speak of just making it over the line, as the Tory vote share nudges slightly up – drawing slivers from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, and a slice back from UKIP – and Miliband’s support falls back. They hope for Conservative candidates in the marginals to out-perform those elsewhere. Either way, they believe Miliband’s vulnerabilities are there to be punished.
As our ConservativeHome polls suggest, Boris Johnson and Theresa May are way out in front in the next Tory leader stakes. May’s speech was impressive in its surprising start (with its justified opposition to stop and search, a cause there will have been some support for in the hall) plus its sweep, stubborn refusal to play to the gallery, and moral seriousness. Boris has gradually gained the incremental authority of a top-flight politician – sealed by that second Mayoral win in London – without losing his comedic touch. His performance at this site’s Rally for Victory was his most assured yet – a bravura piece of classical knockabout from a jocular Mark Antony.
What has happened to the Tory Right? Owen Paterson turned up to ConservativeHome and British Future’s event on immigration…to point out, in formidably well-briefed remarks, that leaving the EU and following the border control path of Norway or Australia would not guarantee lower migration. Across British politics, it has become easier, not harder, to debate immigration. But at the same time, on the centre-right, there is more acknowledgement that we need some. Liam Fox pushed and pulled all the right stops in his packed-out ConservativeHome address, but the mood of those present was subdued as well as supportive. Clearly, a part of the Right has simply decamped to UKIP.
Ruth Davidson has emerged as a star of the Party following her first-rate performance in the Scottish referendum campaign. She’d be future leadership material…if she only had a seat (at Westminster, that is). CCHQ must deploy her more.
Michael Gove continues to break every rule in the Chief Whip’s playbook – as his introduction of David Cameron today at the conference confirmed – and yet to get rave reviews from Tory backbenchers. One of the most hardened rebels told me that “Gove has rung me more times in the past four weeks than George Young or Patrick McLoughlin have done in the past four years.” That he is a listening Chief Whip is not the main point – which is, rather, that he is a listened-to Chief Whip. Ministers and MPs knows that he carries a weight with David Cameron that his predecessors did not. But the Tinker Tailor Soldier Reckless antics of the last week will test him.
The UKIP noises-off have been distracting but not destabilising – all that much, anyway. Will it be Philip Hollobone? Or perhaps Esterhase? Is that Adam Holloway en route to Bristol – or is it Roy Bland? Is Cameron really “C” after all? And where is Smiley Gove? As I suggested earlier this week, CCHQ thinks that it can win in Rochester – hence Cameron’s deliberate decision, when speaking at the ConservativeHome party and elsewhere, to come down from Mount Olympus to the mud pit, and attack Reckless personally. There is a school of thought which claims that UKIP are getting less of a bang for each defector buck. I’m not sure that I share it.
The voice is the voice of Cameron, but the hands are the hands of Osborne. The Chancellor now commands strong respect in the hall – and came earlier this week to deliver the tough stuff on in-work benefits and young people. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, commands…what exactly? Love? No, not as Margaret Thatcher did, or even John Major in his prime. Respect? Certainly – though for the Number Ten operation as whole there is vanishingly little: many Tory MPs, and I’m afraid most of those in my trade, hold it in contempt. Let us call it a knowing acceptance – of David Cameron’s strengths as a presenter, of his ability to think on his feet, of his relative popularity with the voters (never forget: he out-polls his Party) – of his sanity and normality. Above all, he looks like a Prime Minister. They salute his indefatigability.
Remember: the show goes on, with its pledges and vows and announcements – but the audience has left the theatre. Few voters will have followed the Conservative conference this week. Some of those who have will be as confused as I am (at least sometimes). On what timescale will last weekend’s housing pledge work? Are extremism orders really practicable? Hasn’t that promise on seven-day doctor cover been made before? Is there going to be a Conservative-led Government to implement the big personal allowance rise? There is no sense yet from any of the main parties of where the coming scaleback in public spending will really come from. There is a child benefit cutback plan from Balls here; a squeeze on working benefits from Osborne here – but no sense that older voters will pay their share. This is unsustainable.
All this said, the Conservatives have one striking advantage. On the Right, UKIP targets its core vote of angry older voters (when, that is, it’s not pulling back the policy announcements it has just put out). On the Left, Labour targets its own – its public sector core plus Liberal Democrat defectors. Only David Cameron’s party, with its now risen membership, shows any sign of offering serious solutions for serious times – the Gove academies, the May policing reforms, Francis Maude’s brave attempt to shake up the workings of government, Iain Duncan Smith’s getting of workless people back into the labour market. Behind the Blair-era spin are achievements of real substance – that we sometimes take for granted but would miss if they weren’t there. Homes, Jobs, Savings, this site’s trinity: there is action on them all.
Conservatives – the Grown-Up Party. Not the snappiest election slogan, maybe. But a truthful one.