Harold Macmillan was never fond of attending the Conservative Party conference. As he remarked to a young reporter, while walking down a dingy, litter-filled corridor in Llandudno, then a venue for conferences: “Gladstone and Disraeli never had to put up with this.”
That telling detail appears in D.R.Thorpe’s excellent biography, Supermac. Fifty years ago, in 1963, Macmillan precipitated the most exciting Conservative conference ever, by sending word from London to Blackpool that he was resigning because he could no longer withstand “the physical burden” of leading the party into the next general election.
A frantic competition to succeed Macmillan broke out. Lord Hailsham, who seemed to have good chances, ruled himself out by behaving during the conference with what was considered to be vulgar pushiness. Rab Butler and Reggie Maudling made underwhelming speeches. Lord Home, a man of modest demeanour who entered the race late and was not regarded as a front runner, came through the field and won. This was in part because he had fewer enemies than anyone else, and in part, as the American ambassador, David Bruce, observed, because the party felt the need after the Profumo scandal for “morally impeccable leadership”.
One imagines nothing half so exciting will happen this week in Manchester. We have begun to see instead an inglorious display of minor initiatives, all too clearly designed to solicit votes.
There is a bit of window-dressing about cautions, which is meant to show that the Tories are tough on crime. And there is an irresponsible scheme to help people buy over-priced houses, which is meant to show that the party is on the side of people who do not have rich parents.
If I were a floating voter, I think I would find these attempts to gain my support rather patronising. Why can the party not rely on the substantial reforms being made in such fields as taxation, welfare, education and health?
In 2010, when the electorate declined to give the Conservatives an overall majority, David Cameron responded with admirable calmness and professionalism. He played a weak hand with great skill, and formed a coalition which has been more stable and has achieved more than its critics expected.
The sober and realistic conduct of the business of government, the progress made in rehabilitating our finances and our economy, and the introduction of welfare reforms on which even Margaret Thatcher did not feel strong enough to venture, are all far better claims to public support.
This is not a time for Conservatives to sound ingratiating or insecure. There is a growing record of achievement which deserves to be communicated.