Away from the fringes on energy policy, away from the pressure group receptions awash with plonk, away even from the ranks of the party faithful on the auditorium floor, there is the real conference. The real conference is not the froth on the surface, but the gathering’s true significance – it’s role in history. Sometimes the real conference happens according to the pre-ordained script, sometimes it is forced by events away from the conference hall. Sometimes it is too obvious to mention, but sometimes it only becomes clear in retrospect what the real conference was.
In 1963, delegates arriving at the Conservative conference were stunned to be told that their leader, Harold McMillan, had just resigned. In 2005, David Cameron outflanked frontrunner David Davis to become party leader. In 2007 George Osborne won such accolade on his inheritance tax proposals that he spooked Gordon Brown into calling off his snap-election plans shortly afterwards. At the Liberal Democrat conference this year, Nick Clegg and his colleagues put in place their policy of differentiation, telling activists they weren’t like the Tories, indulging in noisy attacks on their government partners. At Labour conference, Ed Miliband told his union paymasters that he was just like them (and sent a message to the voters that he wasn’t like them).
David Cameron has a strong hand at this party conference. Unlike the leaders of the other two main political parties, he is not beset by leadership speculation which forces him to pander to the audience in front of him, but instead he can reach out to the country at large. There is an extraordinary economic crisis, but no political crisis demanding immediate action. The party has the comparative luxury of being able to take a longer term view, and asking what it really wants to achieve. And the answer is clear: to win an overall majority at the general election in 2015.
The issue is not officially on the conference agenda. Few fringes focus on it. Coalition politics dictate that David and George refrain from talking publicly about it, but it is at the front of their mind. Occasionally, it rears up on the platform, such as when co-chairman Baroness Warsi said “As proud as I am of the Coalition, as charming as Chris Huhne is to me, I have a single driving ambition as Chairman of this party: to win an outright Conservative majority in 2015.” The recent talk of election pacts or the desire to continue the coalition after the election has died away to an inaudible silence. Now the chatter is about how to ensure complete victory. This is the conference where the Conservatives have decided they want to win.
It is three and a half years until the general election, but the strategising is already starting, with MPs and other party activists turning their mind to it. There are three different manifestos being published about Conservative policies after the coalition. David Davis has edited his collection “the Future of Conservatism”, MPs in the 40 most marginal seats have put forward ideas to keep their jobs, and then there’s “After the Coalition” from 5 MPs calling for a resurgence of economic conservatism after the next election. Your very own ConservativeHome has dedicated coverage on steps to win an overall majority (a cause to which Lord Ashcroft has dedicated himself). Oliver Letwin has re-started the Conservative Policy Forum, engaging with activists to get input into the next manifesto. The party is trying to revitalise the association structures across the country.
If you make winning an outright victory in 2015 your overall ambition, many other things fall in to place. Most important is that we can only win an election outright on the centre ground. We must resist the temptation to lurch to the right, however comforting that might be, and however much the Liberal Democrats try to push us in that direction. As election history shows, governments only get elected by having policies that appeal to the many, not to the few. In his speech yesterday, George Osborne explicitly reached out to the middle ground voters who feel that the Labour party has abandoned them by lurching to the left, promising that the Conservative Party would be their voice. CCHQ has published a pamphlet on “Modern Compassionate Conservatism”, setting out some future ideas. Ian Duncan Smith, the secretary of state for work and pensions, said that tax cuts must be targeted at the poor. To sit astride the middle ground, the Conservatives cannot afford to subcontract all the “nice” policies to the Liberal Democrats while they roll their sleeves up to focus on the nasty work. The more the Liberal Democrats can credibly tell voters that they are needed in government to tame the wilder instincts of the Conservatives, the less likely an outright victory is.
Start planning for an outright majority in 2015, and the thinking on Europe changes too. The media have declared that Europe is one of the biggest issues at the conference, even though it is barely on the agenda. As I have written previously, the euro crisis is leading to historic developments in the EU, with the possibility of a treaty change and even a golden opportunity for the UK to repatriate some powers. There are loud demands for a referendum, something David Cameron is keen to avoid. But when it comes to Europe, the coalition is so deeply split along party lines that it is very difficult for it to tackle EU reform, with the clear risk that the coalition would be torn apart. David Cameron has made clear in the last couple of days that he doesn’t see it as one of the top issues for voters, while William Hague has appealed for calm amongst restive activists and MPs, saying that it is something that they should only tackle towards the election. Then, he suggests, it could be an election campaign issue, with clear blue water between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (with public opinion very much on the Conservative side). The thinking is that too much noise on Europe now could prove very disruptive, and undermine the plans for an outright victory in 2015. Going for outright victory will mean tackling the Lib Dems head on across a range of issues, not just Europe – but there is a time for that.
The economy is already the central political issue of the day, but being determined to win an outright majority gives it a particular salience. It is an issue in which Labour seems out for the count, but it might affect voters swinging between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. Despite Danny Alexander in the Treasury and Vince Cable in the Department of Business, economic policy is seen as Conservative territory: get it wrong, and the voters are more likely to punish the Conservatives than the Liberal Democrats. Being trusted on the economy – or at least more trusted than our rivals – has been a cornerstone of Conservative victories in the past, and that is even more true in a time of economic trouble.
It is not on the agenda, and the leaders’ haven’t spoken about it. But this is the conference where the Conservative party made up its mind, and started working for a Conservative government.