Reflections on the Conservative Party Conference
The juxtaposition of Birmingham’s inebriated ‘Freshers’ and drab Tory politicos was the setting for this year’s Conservative Party Conference. In fact, this served as quite a good reflection of the Tories’ mood as they reached the halfway point: still a little heady after the surprisingly stunning show that Britain put on this summer, but also a little grumpy that their plan in Government isn’t working.
But nevertheless the atmosphere, as it inevitably is during Conference time, was busy and lively. Fewer activists there may have been but fringes were still packed out and campaigners replete on the main street. Notwithstanding my personal endeavours to exchange a word or two with the well-known faces of public life, there was an air of positivity about Birmingham.
There was, of course, a tangible vibe surrounding one man. Birmingham had caught the Boris fever more than anywhere else, a strange burst of excitement still fuelled by his shenanigans at the Olympics.
There is already a vast amount of literature on BoJo’s credentials as a potential leader out there – even on this forum. It is worth, however, reflecting on his most recent appearance and speech at Birmingham. We knew that it was a defining moment in terms of his potential for leadership. And indeed there was definitely something different as Johnson (it seems strange to address him in such an impersonal way) addressed Conference. Was it the haircut? Statesmanlike body language? Not sure. What is for sure is that Boris’ speech was very good. He has a nonchalance about him coupled with a powerful and forthright rhetoric. His voice is more distinctive and engaging than most other politicians. All this is underpinned by a dangerously impressive classical education. But, as usual, the speech was popular because of his humour. Although littered with policy, initiatives and ideas it was the anticipation of the next gag that kept us all on the edge of our seats. Looking around the hall, delegates’ faces were constantly alit, in awe of such a wickedly intelligent man who could connect with people beyond the means of politics.
His endorsement of Cameron as a leader was in itself tactical. By doing so he appealed to the Party faithful and distanced himself from the rebel that some view him as. Indeed this is one of the hindrances that he faces – the idea that he is too much of a maverick, a clown, almost iconoclastic – not a man to lead Great Britain. His sensible stance sets the stage for the next few years.
The Prime Minister’s speech at the close was the denouement of the Conference. It has been met with mixed views. I saw it as measured and realistic. It was not meant to be a rousing, no-notes, I-don’t-need-a-lectern kind of speech. It was, most importantly, a re-iteration of the compassionate Conservatism that Cameron brought to Government, which has been forgotten in crisis. He restated his commitment to the NHS, disabled people, the aid budget and gay rights. It is impressive to see that he has stayed true to Cameroonism and that he has the courage to employ it when under pressure to change course.
Many have picked up on the Prime Minister’s desire to “spread privilege”. This was badly written – privilege is inherently reserved for the few – but the principle, when not taken literally, is admirable. It rings of the Thatcherite approach of raising the bottom instead of bringing the top down.
My view is that Cameron will lead the Party to victory in 2015. He has about him a quiet revolutionary zeal – in his quest to pursue Jesse Norman’s compassionate economics, the Big Society and to affirm Britain as a world leader – but also is guided by fundamental Conservative principles. The Deputy Political Editor of the BBC said his speech on Wednesday revealed his ‘inner Tory’.
Tory he may be, but his chances still rest on the competence – or rather incompetence – of his opposite man. Miliband won plaudits for his speech in Manchester, but it was lacking in substance. The press will inevitably tip him off as PM material but we cannot shy away from the fact that he does not, really, possess the intrinsic ability to lead or the charisma that Cameron does. Only the other day Harriet Harman said many do not even know who he is.
Cameron’s popularity has ultimately declined due to the disappointing performance of the economy and his apparent lack of decisive action to change this. As I have said already on this forum, I firmly believe that the necessary economic strategy that Osborne is wisely sticking too will take time and only yield ostensible results in the longer term. Cameron will regain his popularity in time.
Above all – and whether this is legitimate political analysis, I am not sure – I see David Cameron as a straight and decent man. Like his politics, he is both compassionate and competitive. He spoke about his personal experiences on Wednesday and this only emphasised that he is not the old boy stereotype. When Tony Blair started in office he was immensely popular because of his personality. When he was accused of corruption with Formula One in tobacco advertising, his answer to the public was simple: that they know he would never do such a thing. I think Cameron has a similar kind of quality.
The Tories will leave Birmingham sobered, yes, but not blighted by the usual throes of comedown. The exhilaration of the summer was intoxicating, but not one fuelled by profligacy as previous booms have been. Conservatives will be aware of the nature of the task and positive about the way it is being carried out.