Last Updated: Friday, October 12th, 2012
The party conference season wasn’t dramatic but it’s worth noting that, on balance, it was good for David Cameron.
First up was the Liberal Democrat conference and – not for the first time – the third party in British politics displayed a lot more self-discipline than many Tory backbenchers. There were no big attacks on Nick Clegg, no devastating votes from the conference delegates and no defections or big resignations. Nick Clegg’s pre-Conference apology for tuition fees and August’s veto of the boundary reform did enough to convince his party that he was moving on from a time when it appeared he was too close to the Tories. On tuition fees Clegg’s strategy appears to be based on the hope that pundits and voters will get tired of discussing the issue if he keeps raising it early enough in the electoral cycle. I think it might work for pundits but I don’t think voters will become either exhausted by the topic or will ever forget. David Cameron will nonetheless be pleased that Clegg has stabilised his leadership and will hope that that means the Coalition will also be stabilised for a bit longer too. Although Tory strategists think a Cable leadership is more likely to eventually revive Lib Dem fortunes (and therefore split the anti-Tory vote in Con/Lab marginals) they don’t want a change of Lib Dem leader any time soon. They are also impressed with Clegg’s appointment of Paddy Ashdown as his general election campaign manager. Lord Ashdown has the internal party authority to help Mr Clegg fight off any early leadership challenge. As the architect of the Lib Dems’ breakthrough in 1997 he is also well equipped to implement the party’s central message at the next election – that, in coalition, Lib Dem kingmakers will humanise the Tories and force Labour to be responsible.
On the face of it Labour’s leader had a very good Conference. The media respect him more after his ‘one nation’ land grab of a message and rank-and-file Labour members no longer see him as the liability that they feared he was. Tory strategists are remarkably and, I believe, honestly super cool about Mr Miliband’s without-notes performance, however. They have always intended to attack Labour as a party that would increase debt (and therefore taxes); as on the wrong side of the public on the wedge issues of welfare, immigration and crime; and thirdly, that Ed Miliband is incapable of taking tough decisions. They still think all of those attack strategies are as potent now as before Manchester. They believe, therefore, that Labour missed an opportunity to prove that it had learnt some lessons about responsible stewardship of the public finances. My own biggest reflection on spending three days at the Labour Conference was the extent to which it has become a public sector party – dominated by people who work in politics, local government, taxpayer-financed NGO-land or in the union movement. Mentioning this to Conservative advisers I get the impression that Labour’s ignorance of what it means to create jobs and wealth creation will be exploited in Tory campaigning.
Finally came Birmingham and the Tories. Two good things happened for the Prime Minister. First was the ‘Boris Johnson 24 hours’. The Mayor of London didn’t come to bury the Tory leader but to praise him. He was a model of loyalty for all of the time he was at Conference. Well nearly. Responding to the PM calling him a “blond mop” he said the PM was therefore a broom – cleaning up Labour’s mess. That was funny but in calling George Osborne the “dust pan” of the cleansing operation the Mayor was, perhaps, being a little more pointed. Was Boris being loyal because their recent Chequers lunch had created a new PM/Mayoral accord or has he realised that if he really wants to be Tory leader he mustn’t be the one – or even seen to be the one – who wields the dagger? But if having the nation’s most popular politician on message (at least for a brief window) was good for the PM his speech may have more significant, enduring effects. I suggested at the start of the week that the most important divide in politics wasn’t currently between left and right or traditionalist and moderniser but between serious and trivial or between long-term and short-term. This was the pitch that Cameron made to the nation from his oakwood lecturn. Sink or swim, do or decline said Cameron. He also found a new way of presenting his deficit, education and welfare plans. Think of them, he suggested, not in terms of economic necessity or as ideologically-driven, but as the building blocks of an authentic Tory compassion. Finally I wonder if Cameron has found a form of modernisation that can chime with his party. Not a green, big society modernisation that seems detached from today’s economic imperatives but a modernisation of traditional Tory messages. Bringing Tory values of self-reliance, aspiration and a helping hand from the state all up-to-date. If Cameron can develop this idea and unite his party behind it then that will be a big, new and very bankable development in British politics.
The long-term downside of the Conference season might be the growing gap between Clegg and Osborne on welfare cuts. Clegg is insisting he needs a new wealth tax as a precondition of authorising deeper reductions in welfare spending. The Chancellor has ruled out almost any kind of wealth tax except, it seems, higher council tax bands. Developing, as they say.
By Tim Montgomerie
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME
STEPHAN SHAKESPEARE ON THE POSSIBILITY OF A LIB/CON RECOVERY: “If the economy recovers, as surely it will before 2015, both parties will seek, and gain, significant credit. And both parties will want to cash that in for another term in power. Can we seriously imagine the LibDems siding with Labour when the party of Gordon Brown is still taking the blame for the mess? I think it’s perfectly possible that the coalition will one day appear to the public after to be something of success, and both sides will suddenly feel much better about each other.” More via http://conservativehome.blogs.com/thecolumnists/2012/10/stephan-shakespeare-by-historical-standards-labours-opinion-poll-lead-is-quite-modest.html
IAIN ANDERSON ON THE NEED FOR THE GOVERNMENT TO HIRE A CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER: “In the pre-election period the Maude agenda to radically reshape Whitehall promised much – but it has taken almost half this Parliament to gain traction with its basic idea – that elected politicians should be running the show and civil servants are there to work at the pleasure of the administration they ‘serve’. Later that evening I bumped into a minister who told me her Whitehall team were not returning calls on an urgent issue. Well it was 7pm after all!” More via http://conservativehome.blogs.com/platform/2012/10/prime-minister-its-time-to-hire-your-chief-operating-officer.html
NORMAN LAMONT ON GEORGE OSBORNE’S CORRECT ECONOMIC MEDICINE: “Far from slash and burn, the Coalition’s plans for deficit reduction have been carefully calibrated. We started the crisis with a deficit equal to that of Greece. Not being in the euro, we have had more flexibility and today our deficit is higher than that of Greece, France, Italy and Spain. The reality is that the deficit reduction has been gradual and designed to not snuff out the recovery. Ed Balls likes to point out that the total stock of debt of the country is still increasing as though that is somehow criticism of the Coalition. Yes, the debt has increased and will increase but that is because the deficit reduction has been deliberately gradual.” More via http://conservativehome.blogs.com/platform/2012/10/lord-lamont-george-osborne-is-doing-the-right-thing-and-history-will-judge-him-well.html
ANDREW LILICO WARNS OF DIFFERENT PROBLEMS WHEN THE ECONOMY RECOVERS: “Rapid inflation and interest rate rises would present a new and unwelcome challenge to Osborne, on top of the difficulties of implementing spending cuts and consistently missing his deficit reduction targets. The early phase of recovery might well also be associated with a rise in unemployment, as recoveries often are (e.g. the early 1980s). Rising interest rates could also lead to even bigger house price falls. House prices are already down 33% in real terms since 1997. Even a 2% rise in interest rates would put a large number of households with excessive mortgages into distress.” More via http://conservativehome.blogs.com/thecolumnists/2012/10/andrew-lilico-osbornes-medicine-may-taste-horrible-but-its-the-best-cure-we-have.html
ROBERT HALFON MP INTRODUCES THE IDEA OF WHITE VAN CONSERVATISM: “White Van Conservatives want strong policies — such as lower taxes, lower immigration and more incentives for those who work — but that are compassionate too. They want support for public services, especially the NHS; a more sympathetic ear to Trade Union members, nurses and teachers; and a safety net for those who fall off the ladder. It reflects the fact that work has become much more individualised, as more and more people become self employed (currently at around 4.1 million, and growing all the time), micro and small businesses are the mainstay of the economy.” More via http://conservativehome.blogs.com/platform/2012/10/now-we-must-build-on-this-white-van-conservatism.html
RECORD OF KEY TORY CONFERENCE POLICY ANNOUNCEMENTS: http://conservativehome.blogs.com/thetorydiary/2012/10/party-conference-policy-announcements-rolling-blog.html