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TEN THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR AT THE CONSERVATIVE CONFERENCE

Last Updated: Friday, September 30th, 2011

The mood of last year’s Conservative conference wasn’t triumphalist, but it was happy: the party was back in Government, albeit without a majority and in coalition.

The mood of this year’s won’t be unhappy, but it will be anxious.  The relationship with the Liberal Democrats have worsened and the economic skies have darkened.

In that context, it will be worth watching the following especially:

George Osborne’s speech: There is near-unanimous agreement in the party that the Chancellor is doing enough to help drive growth: his early strategy seemed to be that if the deficit was reduced the growth would come.  With a divided America and a Eurozone crisis, this prospect has receded.  Osborne, a political animal first and always, takes a lot of trouble with his conference speeches: after all, he may have a leadership election to fight one day.  It was his speech announcements on inheritance tax and stamp duty in 2007 which helped frighten Gordon Brown off calling an election.  His address this week won’t be as important as then, but it will be the most watched of the week – David Cameron’s apart – and the stakes are high, as he seeks to persuade those watching that he has an urgent plan for growth.

How Cameron deals with the Liberal Democrats: Since last year’s conference, AV has gone down in a referendum and relations with Nick Clegg’s party haven’t been the same since.  On dealing with extremism, mansion and wealth taxes, free schools, the EU, responding to the riots, and above all the NHS, the LibDems have shifted to trying to boost their poll ratings by confronting their partners rather than co-operating with them.  Conservative MPs’ frustration exploded in the revolt on votes for prisoners, and that it hasn’t boiled over since doesn’t mean it isn’t there.  Cameron’s key purpose will be to look Prime Ministerial and authoritative.  Which suggests that although he may drop some blue meat to the conference – on welfare and immigration, for example – he and other Ministers will avoid Doing A Farron.

The new intake of Conservative MPs:
Last year, only one member of the new intake had published a policy book: Nick Boles, a modernising insider.  Now, more are seeking promotion and publicity. To date, there have been two major literary projects – Matthew Hancock and Nadhim Zahawi’s book on banks and the city and “After the Coalition” – a right-of-party-centre manifesto published by five Tory MPs.  Now comes a book that offers more of that flavour – “A Conservative Future”, edited by David Davis.  Old-timers such as Davis are sure to seek the limelight, but it’s worth watching the younger ones involved in the project, such as Therese Coffey and Steve Baker.  Exchanges over policy between Boles and his colleagues – like that he undertook in today’s Telegraph – are where the future of the party’s being fought out.

Michael Gove and Iain Duncan-Smith: Gove and Duncan Smith are the three main Conservative successes of the Government to date.  Duncan Smith’s ratings are as much do with personal standing as policy achievement: the universal credit has yet to come in – and is reliant on a major Government computer project working – while his welfare-to-work plans are challenged by rising unemployment.  Gove, however, has a real achievement under his belt – a third or so of schools have either become academies on his watch or are planning to do so.  Together, the Education and Welfare Secretaries offer a narrative for a Government without one: a tale of stronger families, better schools and – eventually – more jobs and prosperity that could appeal both to aspirational voters and those concerned by social justice.  Will the party planners project them?

Up and coming Ministers: How the party managers arrange the conference, which junior Ministers speak directly to the conference, which aren’t offered the chance to do so – all these details help signify who’s up, who’s down, who’s going places.  So the conference programme will be worth studying closely.  For example, Damian Green, the Immigration Minister, isn’t in the Cabinet but is speaking to the conference directly amidst a Home Affairs and Justice session opened by Ken Clarke and closed by Theresa May.  This is a sign of how important the immigration brief and how well trusted Green is to manage it.  In the same session, Nick Herbert, who deals with the police and prisons, will speak with others as part of a discussion panel.  Who does what on the platform is a reliable guide to seniority.

The Conservative Political Forum:
How will the Party form policy for its next manifesto?  It can’t use the Downing Street policy unit or the civil service to help it do so, since both work not for the party but for the Government as a whole.  Into the gap has stepped the Conservative Policy Forum, in which party members can participate.  Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet Office Minister in charge, and party managers face a dilemma.  If they produced a manifesto written without party participation, they would risk a revolt.  But if they do, they risk a preoccupation with staple activist issues – such as the EU – which remain stubbornly low on voters’ lists of priorities.  So they are experimenting with two closed CPC sessions this week: on the economy and education respectively.  It will be interesting to see what emerges.

How the Conservatives deal with Miliband:
The Labour leader’s conference task was to set out what he stands for,  thereby impose his authority on his party, and give it a poll boost.  He succeeded in the first, didn’t really do so in the second – though a leadership challenge, always difficult to organise in the Labour Party, is unlikely – and failed in the third.  Voters simply don’t see Miliband as Prime Minister and such perceptions, once formed, are extremely hard to shift.  The Conservatives have a strategic choice: to deal with Miliband as either red or odd – though they could try a mix of both.  One thing is certain: since David Cameron will want to project authority and seniority this week – which is why the word “leadership” has cropped up in the conference slogan – he will leave the pitbull assaults to others.

Women: The Conservatives fared poorly among three groups at the last election: Scottish voters, public sector workers and members of ethnic minorities.  They have no clear strategy for winning support among these groups – the party has consistently failed to rise to the last challenge in particular – and cannot afford to see further large interest groups shift against them.  Women voters are too diverse to be an interest group and too big to be a minority one, but polls show that they are shifting against the Government.  There has also been a longer-term trend of them moving against the Conservatives.  Whether the conference managers have a plan to project the party’s aims to women this week – to pitch them to a particular sensibility – will be a test of whether or not they’ve grasped the challenge for them in winning the support of roughly half the population.

A response to the riots: The Government has a deficit reduction message, though no larger economic one – a gap that George Osborne must move to fill.  But David Cameron has always been as preoccupied by social issues as economic ones – taking up the theme of social responsibility in opposition and championing his ideal of the Big Society in Government.  His speech last year was preoccupied by it.  Since then, the riots have happened: during their aftermath in August, some wrote that their shadow would hang over the conference season.  Cameron needs to covert his abstract concept of the Big Society into a concrete narrative – a story of what’s wrong with Britain and how it will be put right.  Projecting a response to the riots, and the broken society behind them, is an essential part of that tale.

And finally…that E word: Conferences can be as meticulously planned as any project, but in this age a single occurrence can drive them off course.  The best part of last year’s was consumed by a row over the withdrawal of child benefit from higher earners: it raged for the best part of two days, driving other coverage off the front pages and to the back of broadcasting.  So it is that a big interview on the fringe – like Andrew Rawnsley’s one of Chris Huhne during the Liberal Democrat conference – or a slip at a meeting by a Minister or a call by a rebel can set the news agenda.  The most combustible issue is the EU.  Party opinion has shifted towards withdrawal.  And the Eurozone crisis won’t be suspended for the conference’s duration.

By Paul Goodman

 

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK FROM CONSERVATIVEHOME

 

Murdo Fraser MSP: A new, Scottish, centre-right party is the key to re-connecting with voters who are not listening at present
“Of course policies matter…And of course leadership matters…But the fact is that none of these things get to the heart of the matter.  That is because our fundamental problem remains that, for a whole variety of reasons related to the way they perceive the Scottish Conservative Party, people are just not listening to us, never mind voting for us.  So the many voters in Scotland who share our centre-right values of freedom and responsibility have found an alternative home.” Read more: http://is.gd/HsWULT

Harry Phibbs: The hypocrisy of the leading opponents of free schools
“There is Christine Blower… former Socialist Alliance candidate for London Assembly…There is Fiona Millar, partner of Alastair Campbell and Chairman of the Governors of William Ellis School…Then there is Melissa Benn, daughter of Tony. Interviewed in The Guardian she defends employing private tutors for her daughter.  In formulating their policy on free schools will the Labour Party…support the increasing number of decent people like Peter Hyman and Toby Young who are making a positive difference extending choice to the many and not just the few.?” Read more: http://is.gd/HlZ9zc

Ruth Lea: The Euro cannot go on and governments must plan for its break-up

” Given the depth of financial integration, the Eurozone offers scope for contagion on an epic scale. There could, almost certainly would, be contagion to Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy and concerns that they too will default (and possibly leave). And then there is the issue of banks’ losses, especially those of Greek and French banks, if Greece defaults. The Eurozone governments, either individually or collectively, must be prepared to support the area’s banking systems if the need arises. This may be unpalatable, it could well prove costly, but it is necessary.”  Read More: http://is.gd/XJCOJr

Viereck: Ed Miliband has two options: be honest about Labour’s failings, or be a charismatic leader. He can’t do either.

“So, you don’t have to be beautiful to win elections. Except that, if you’re Ed Miliband, you do. I’ll explain: When a party is down there are two paths to recovery. One is to admit the truth about your own past failings and to speak the truth about the country’s problems. The Labour Party have obviously decided not to go for that option; so that leaves the second path – plan B, if you like – which is to whip up a tidal wave of hype and ride it all the way. Its advantage over the first path is that intellectual honesty is not required, the disadvantage is that a charismatic leader… most certainly is.” Read more: http://is.gd/Vzl98H

 

Lord Ashcroft: Polling from marginal Tory seats shows the Party needs to expand its voter base in order to win a majority
“Overall, then, it is clear that things in marginal Conservative seats where Labour are close challengers, things look slightly more uncomfortable for the Tories than in the country as a whole…Things in Lib Dem territory evidently look rather better – the solidity of the Tory vote, combined with the defection of some Lib Dem voters to Labour, produces a swing to the Conservatives that suggests we should be looking to make gains from them in 2015.  So the news from the marginals is mixed.  Things could be very much worse.  But we need the Conservative voting coalition to expand if we are to win an overall majority at the next election.” Read more: http://is.gd/5SyQRL

Bruce Anderson: Don’t be fooled by the weather. This is the deep mid-winter.

“On a macro, global scale, we have to find a way of identifying and segregating the toxic assets while re-capitalising the banks. The aim would be to protect the real world, in which people work and spend and save and invest, from the Bedlam world of bad banking and worse currencies. But that has obvious moral hazards. It would also insulate those who made the wrong decisions from the consequences of their misdeeds. A bit of fatted calf is one thing, but the Prodigal bankers and the Eurodigal fantasists have squandered hundreds of billions.” Read more: http://is.gd/OwsJ4O

Stephan Shakespeare: Our society can’t move forward if we don’t become more productive

“But that’s not the whole story. Even if the economy had been steady, we would still have faced a decline in jobs appropriate to the lengthening period of education. We have been constantly increasing the proportion of students who go to university, widening the range of courses which we pretend will lead to professional careers. But there’s a flaw: only if productivity increases in line with expanding education can our children’s rising expectations be satisfied.” Read More: http://is.gd/FR1UDr

Paul Goodman: It wasn’t a heartfelt speech. It was a cynical speech. Which is why it won’t work.
“It’s as though his advisers had said to him before the conference.  “Look, Ed, the voters don’t get you.  Your only chance of breaking through is to convince them you’re real.  So there’s a happy coincidence of instinct and strategy here.  Do you feel left-wing?  Then be left-wing.  It may not work.  But it’s the only chance you’ve got…Right at the start, the present leader alluded to the past one – and what was probably Kinnock’s finest hour, his courageous Liverpool conference speech attack on Militant.  But which tough target did Miliband bravely attack today?  Fred Goodwin.” Read More: http://is.gd/LmYbIs

Anthony Browne: Politicians are keen to blame the banks for the economic crisis but the politicians who borrowed too much and the politicians who created the Euro also bear responsibility
“The common theme – from sub-prime lending, to excessive government spending, to monetary union – is that we should be very worried about governments trying to buck the markets. To believe the cause is primarily a failure of markets rather than politics is to draw the wrong conclusion, leading to the wrong solution. Which is what is so worrying about Ed’s big idea. He wants politicians to decide which businesses thrive and which ones don’t. This isn’t a cure, but more of the disease. It’s like giving someone more arsenic in an attempt to cure them of arsenic poisoning.” Read More: http://is.gd/3tj7Rg

Tobias Ellwood MP: Project Maja – Social Action in Bangladesh

“We as a Party now have a formidable reputation for social action projects both at home and abroad. They emphasise the very deep Conservative value of social responsibility; the belief that by working together we can deliver real change. And we certainly did that in Bangladesh…Baroness Warsi, who has been the driving force behind Project Maja, can be immensely proud of the entire team who volunteered, indeed paid to be taken out of our comfort zones and participate in this demanding and ambitious project (as well as endure an earthquake!)” – Read More: http://is.gd/x2aAE4

Tim Montgomerie: What is Cameron’s offer to the poor? What is Cameron’s offer beyond deficit reduction?
“The Coalition does have an impressive if imperfect ‘offer to the poor’. Blond lists ingredients of that offer. Where he is right is that this offer has no coherent explanation. The Government has allowed itself to be defined by deficit reduction…Conservatives need to make three promises not just to the poor but to every person hoping for something better for their children. Something like this: We’ll support you and your family…You’ll have a right to choose a good school for your children…We’ll help you into work.  This isn’t a complete explanation but you get the idea.” Read More: http://is.gd/YS6TSz

Jill Kirby: What are Conservatives for? A review of “Conservatism” by Kieron O’Hara

“Conservatism (the book) is far from perfect. There is a tendency to repetition which could have been avoided by some tighter editing. But it is thought-provoking in the best sense. Anyone seeking a modern definition of conservative (or Conservative)philosophy should read it. And today’s politicians would do well to note the author’s concluding exhortation against seeking power for its own sake. Power, as every conservative should know, is not the be-all and end-all of politics.” Read more: http://is.gd/OzQRuZ

Eric Pickles: Every household has a right to have a weekly bin collection
“These steps show that the idea that you have to choose between being environmentally responsible or having weekly collections is a false dilemma.  Or, in other words, a load of old rubbish. So I’m proud to be supporting councils to give residents what they want.  My Department has set aside two hundred and fifty million pounds.  This is extra money that we are allocating for the first time, on top of existing funds being given to local government. We’re offering councils a deal.  If they commit to providing weekly waste collection for the next five years, they can take their share of this new quarter of a billion pound fund.” Read More: http://is.gd/Q1ryVQ

ConservativeHome’s profile of David Cameron for #TheRight100
“Cameron currently dominates British politics. The Labour party is in a strategically weak position. The Liberal Democrats would face annihilation if they brought down his government. The Tory Right is becoming a little more organised but remains too balkanised to challenge him in any serious way. His relationship with his Chancellor is rock solid. After years of disunity all previous Tory leaders are in Cameron’s corner, actively helping him to succeed…If he can get the economy growing he will be able to afford to refocus on his great cause – social responsibility – and, then, his best and happiest years may be ahead of him.” Read More: http://is.gd/wiqH25

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