1. Osborne’s strategic assault on Labour. The Chancellor’s strong ratings among Party members, and love of outflanking the Opposition, meant that his speech on Monday was always going to be a focus. It was an assured performance, and his pleasure at duffing up Labour – in policy terms and through poaching Lord Adonis – was visible for all to see. As many have remarked, the Chancellor has revolutionised his reputation among the Tory grassroots. Now, with the Northern Powerhouse, his interventions on pay and his enthusiasm for fiscal devolution, he is out to win over the nation.
2. Cameron’s sense of urgency. While Osborne mined what has become his regular seam, the Prime Minister roved wide over new territory, taking full advantage of the opportunities presented by the election of Jeremy Corbyn. He was more thankful than triumphant regarding his majority, and took the chance to explore new topics that already have centrist Labourites worried. With a self-imposed time limit on his premiership, but a lot more to do to build the Greater Britain he described, he is “in a hurry”. No pressure, ministers.
3. May’s frankness. The direct nature of the Home Secretary’s argument on immigration, and the tone of some of the reaction to it, are a reminder that while this is a majority Government, the waters it must navigate are still choppy. Whether pro-immigration commentators like it or not, the issue becomes ever more important to a growing number of voters. Whether ministers like it or not, their “tens of thousands” pledge remains impossible to fulfil while we are inside the EU and enjoying much better economic growth than our neighbours.
4. There was no EU “civil war”. Much to the visible disappointment of some broadcasters, who seem stuck in the 1990s, there was no sign of the oft-heralded outbreak of infighting over the EU. In part this is a result of how much the Conservatives have shifted – there are few blindly ideological federalists any more, and instead the debate is between confirmed Leave supporters and mostly reluctant advocates of a vote to Remain. But it is also a tribute to the careful, responsible attitude of Steve Baker et al, who ensure their tone is positive and constructive. Eurosceptics had a good September, securing a rephrased referendum question, purdah and a promise of CCHQ resource neutrality. Chris Grayling’s comment that the UK would prosper outside the EU points to the next internal debate, which will be over whether ministers should be free to support either side when the referendum comes.
5. But there’s growing trouble over tax credits. The idea of the Conservative Party as the workers’ party has gained widespread traction among MPs and activists. Unlike, say, the Big Society, it seems coherent, explicable and compelling. But as more people take up that banner, some are growing uncomfortable about how the planned tax credit changes fit with the theme. The Sun has taken up the fight on behalf of its readers, arguing that those affected are the very workers the Tories are meant to be appealing to (and Jeremy Hunt’s comments about working harder like the Chinese won’t have helped). A fair few MPs agree – meaning it could prove hard to hold the line.
6. The leadership question is now permanently on the table. Regardless of whether a minister (or an outgoing Mayor) might intend it, all announcements and interviews will be read through the filter of the forthcoming leadership vacancy. The Prime Minister himself opened the door to this speculation, and there’s no point pretending it won’t form part of the background for the next few years. Conservative members, as well as the media, will be watching the potential candidates closely – but while they may well reward those who show promise, they could also punish anyone who appears to risk the stability of the Government in the cause of personal ambition. Everyone at the top has a tightrope to walk.
7. The grassroots were out in force, particularly on the conference fringe. There’s always a debate about the composition of the Party conference audience – how many are lobbyists and how many are Conservative members and activists? It was notable this year that at ConHome’s fringe events, the room was routinely packed to the gunnels with grassroots Tories. Other organisations report similar turnouts and a similar rise in grassroots representation. If that represents a more engaged membership, taking a more active interest in the battle of ideas, that’s good news for our Party and the wider movement.
8. The nation got to see the ugly face of left-wing extremism. While Tory ministers and members got on with the task of working out the practicalities of the next five years, the protests outside the secure zone could not have been more different. Slinging abuse, threats and eggs, this was the Corbyn-supporting, hateful left in full anti-democratic spate. It was unpleasant for Tory activists (and there is justified frustration at the shamefully hands-off approach of the police), but it will also highlight to the vast majority of reasonable people the nature of the choice facing Britain. On one hand there is a serious party of government, elected by over 11 million people, and on the other there is are extremist cliques offering only hatred and chaos. The leaders of the Left would do well to reflect on the contribution their own rhetoric makes to such thuggish behaviour – and the harm it does to their own cause.