Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publications, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.
The Conservative conference was never going to be exciting. Party strategists decided to make it as boring as possible. Yes, there would be the odd big policy announcement but, in general, if the Tories could escape Manchester with no adverse headlines, it would be a job well done. Things, however, are never quite that simple.
Most of the media looked at the entire event through the prism of who will succeed David Cameron when the time comes. It may be four years too early – but, hey, it keeps people like me in work.
And now that the conference is over, we know little more than we did at the start. We know that George Osborne is taking on more and more domestic policy responsibilities, and that he wants to position the Conservatives to eat into the working class Labour vote.
He gave an accomplished performance on Monday, and left no one in any doubt as to whether he sees himself as Cameron’s natural successor. On Tuesday, it was the turn of Boris Johnson and Theresa May to impress. Or not.
May surprised us all by giving a very right-wing speech entirely about immigration. Having warned the Tories at their 2002 conference that they were in danger of seeing the nasty party, 13 years on she seemed determined to prove the truth of that remark. It may have gone down well with a certain tranche of Tory members, but the Westminster media hated it. She’s clearly calculated that neither Boris nor Osborne will be the candidates of the right, so she might as well slip her kitten heals into that gap.
Boris gave the undoubted hit speech of the conference – and he needed to. His stock has fallen since his return to Parliament and, in ConservativeHome polls, his ratings have dropped. He seemed to have lost his MoJo (or possibly BoJo) and has done little to impress. Three or four years out from a leadership election, this is still important. If he is to make the final round of the contest, he needs to win the support of his fellow MPs, so he knows he has a mountain to climb. The 2015 intake don’t know him and are slightly in awe of him. He’s failed to cultivate the 2010 intake, and those who served with him when he was last in Parliament remember his shambolic performances on the front bench and his inability to be part of a team.
But it was David Cameron’s speech that most will remember from this conference. He showed those present what they will be missing when he departs in a few years’ time. His articulation of the case for liberal social reform was quite something, especially the passage on equality being the key to opportunity. His forceful denunciation of ‘passive tolerance’ of extremism went down well in the hall, and many (even on the left) will have cheered him out in the country.
What those of us inside the Westminster bubble noticed, though, was the way in which Cameron bigged up Johnson, Osborne and Michael Gove. But for Theresa May, there was nothing. And after her immigration speech, it was no more than she deserved. That may seem cruel, but as someone who has been a fan of hers for many years, I could not have been more disappointed in her.
Heidi Allen is a new MP who hadn’t come across my radar until this week’s conference. But within two minutes of meeting her, she became one of my favourite MPs to interview.
She was appearing on my end of day conference panel, when I asked her what she thinks of George Osborne’s speech, and whether she believes he could be the next leader. “Nah, too smooth,” she replied.
Having picked my jaw up off the floor, I thought I might be on a rich vein of quotery here, so I asked her about her view of Boris. I can’t do her justice by repeating what she said in words, so listen to the clips above and below, but suffice it to say it involves mud wrestling and Vladimir Putin.
But then there was more. She compared Theresa May to Edna Mode from the Incredibles. A quite astonishing debut on the radio, but one which has guaranteed repeat bookings!
Now from the feedback I’ve had on social media from listeners, they loved her too. They liked the fact she gave her real views in a humorous way and was unspun. I’m sure the party media managers won’t have been too impressed, but they are living in the wrong era. People want genuineness, and with Allen they got it. Even Theresa saw the funny side when I put it to her. Good on her for that. Darling.
So Zac Goldsmith won. That was a surprise, wasn’t it?! How odd, though, for the conference organisers to put him and Boris on together. Zac may be many things, but he can’t compete with Boris for oratory. I felt rather sorry for him, although he delivered a perfectly fine speech.
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So what’s Nicky Morgan up to, then? That was the question on a lot of people’s minds this week after her hint last week that she would stand in the forthcoming leadership contest.
When I interviewed her on Tuesday, she went further than a hint. “It would be an honour to lead the Conservative Party,” she told me. Well, it was a straight answer to a straight question. There’s nothing wrong with ambition and, since Cameron has fired the starting gun, why should she be criticised for stating the obvious?
When Nicky became Education Secretary, I wrote that depending on how she performed in the role, she could go all the way. I still retain that view. She hasn’t shown yet what kind of Tory she really is, but there’s time for that. She has time to prove herself.
In 2008, I was the first person to tip Ed Miliband as the next leader of the Labour Party, so I have a bit of form here. I’m not ready to say Nicky will be the next leader, but I genuinely believe it’s a possibility if she plays her cards right.
What on earth was Jeremy Corbyn thinking? This week, he turned up in Manchester to address the baying mob who had spent the week spitting at, insulting and, in a few cases, actually assaulting Conservative conference goers.
People will have rightly drawn their own conclusions. OK, it was only a small minority who did these things, but there was some pretty nasty stuff going on. Threats of rape. Telling a Jewish man to ‘go back to Auschwitz. Scum.
And I was appalled by Manchester Police. They were clearly loving watching the wicked Tories running the gauntlet each afternoon, and did little to prevent some of the more unruly scenes. The protesters only appeared in the afternoon, presumably because they were still in bed in the morning.
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Next Tuesday, I am going on a speed awareness course, then going to see Cliff Richard at the Royal Albert Hall. Insert your own joke here.