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Five Observations from the Conservative Conference

After three weeks of networking, nibbles and noisy nights in the bar, the party conference season is finally over for another year. After six months of bad headlines and dreadful economic data, David Cameron had headed to Birmingham under pressure to demonstrate direction and purpose.  So how successful was the Tories’ conference and what did we learn from the Conservative gathering in Britain’s second city?

1.   The Tories have repositioned themselves

David Cameron’s fluent keynote speech set out a clear set of values which the Conservatives have struggled to project in recent months. After Labour’s ‘One Nation’ comes the Tories’ ‘Aspiration Britain’ with a distinctly Thatcher-era formulation that the Conservatives are there to support everyone who wants to get on.  In the speech, this was impressively linked to the macro-economic need for Britain to succeed in the modern world by embracing enterprise, welfare reduction and educational reform. Interestingly, David Cameron gave a more traditionally Conservative policy interpretation of the Government’s agenda than he has sometimes seemed comfortable making. This time, he was trying to persuade us that Conservative values epitomised the best of Britain rather than explaining the ‘Big Society’ or doing the ‘green is blue’ routine.

2.   The pragmatic, centre-ground of the party reasserted itself

The pre-conference speculation that the Right of the party would frame the zeitgeist was off the mark. Policy debate in the fringes and bars was dominated by the pragmatic focus of the talented 2010 intake of MPs and even Boris Johnson took a few days off criticising his own side to ostentatiously back the Government.  New ministers and senior backbenchers hit the circuit with vigour to defend the Government’s record and take the fight to Labour rather than their own side. By the time the PM stood up to speak on Wednesday, he could feel confident that his mainstream conservatism message was the mood of the conference too.

3.   They believe strongly in what they are doing with deficit reduction

It was near-impossible to find a Conservative who was not behind the Government’s programme of deficit reduction. With both the PM and Chancellor recommitting themselves to deficit reduction as a key dividing line for the election, it was clear the party is behind them all the way on both the policy and the politics, albeit wanting it to be explained better by ministers. Just as importantly, they know they may not get the credit for any successes but are determined to see the plan through.

4.   They are realistic about the reputational problems they face

For a PM who struggles with his ‘smugness’ ratings, David Cameron’s speech was remarkably open about the extent to which the Government has allowed its Labour opponents to frame much of the recent debate. In politics, fighting back against an accusation usually means explicitly acknowledging its existence and this speech was no different. Hence Mr Cameron repositioning his Eton education as something that had stimulated a desire for a privileged education for all and the reminder with a highly personal anecdote that his own family wealth was earned by his father rather than handed down through the generations. 

5.   The No 10 operation needs to improve

If there was one common theme to the journalists’ and MPs’ idle chat it was criticism of the Downing Street operation and frustration with David Cameron that he had not gripped the problem. Despite several talented staff in the PM’s inner circle, he would be unwise to ignore the muttering from his friends in the media that the overall operation is not up to the task.  How well staff in No 10 follow through the success of the PM’s speech with a professionally executed clear strategy will be a big test of whether the favourable conference headlines can be translated into the foundation for an election victory.


Last updated 29/06/2016