Some observations from the Conservative Conference in Birmingham

Mark Reckless and Brooks Newmark brought the Tory faithful together

Lazy consensus had it that the Conservatives would be reeling after Mark Reckless’ defection and Brooks Newmark’s paisley adventure. But the Tories are never more effective than when their backs are against the wall – and David Cameron is particularly good under these circumstances. Remember 2007? The Tories started that conference knowing that a surprisingly-popular Gordon Brown was intending to call a snap election. By the end of the week Brown was finished.

What worked in particular was the notion that, unlike Douglas Carswell, Mark Reckless wasn’t much of a loss to the party. Also, the mainstream wing were able to require the Ukip-leaning right to pledge their loyalty and discipline. And the tabloid/Guido Fawkes sting that brought down Brooks Newmark seemed somewhat unfair – with Labour voices condemning it. Under those circumstances you don’t let yourselves feel like victims, but rally together, and that’s what the Conservatives did.

Labour were already worn down by office, but the Tories see themselves as the opposition

In Manchester fringe meetings, Labour front benchers tried to find policy answers to the problems being raised. You felt they were already thinking about how the levers of office could be used. As a result, the tone was technical which contributed to the conference being described as flat.

By contrast, the Conservatives allow themselves to feel like insurgents. They don’t feel that this has been a ‘proper’ Tory government, that they’ve been hobbled by their coalition partners. The loudest cheer in any fringe I attended was when Liam Fox said something dismissive about the Liberal Democrats. (It also inspired an exclamation of ‘the Limp Dumbs!’ from the seriously-dressed 20-something gentleman next to me, as he looked round for approval, convinced that he’d said something original and hilarious.) Despite having been in office for four years, Conservative MPs talk about government as something in the future rather than the present. And they share with Ukip the idea that the country is run by some imaginary politically correct dictatorship. That gets everyone excited.

The Conservatives have written off Ed Miliband, and this may come back to bite them

It’s now received wisdom that Miliband’s speech last week tanked and was in no way ‘solid’ as someone apparently said on TV. It’s true that the Labour leader gets terrible ratings. But there’s often the sense that the Conservatives are affronted by Miliband personally, as though his very existence is offensive. This leads to amazing hypocrisy, as over Syria (when Miliband was blamed for Cameron losing control over Tory backbenchers), or when Miliband wants to intervene in markets (activity which Grant Shapps never seems to condemn when it’s his side that are doing it). But I wonder whether the Conservatives will come to rue their complacency.

The branding was very professional, for good and ill

And I hope you all like blue!
And I hope you all like blue!

Everywhere, blue slogans covered the ICC. Very corporate, very reassuring in its attention to detail (even if some of the claims raise further questions. For example, ‘The deficit cut by over a third’ simply reminded me that the target to eliminate it has been missed by over half.) ‘Securing a better future’ is a far better construct than last year’s risible ‘For hardworking people’.

Ed Miliband had performed his Manchester speech in the round, with carefully-chosen supporters behind him. No doubt they were briefed to clap and whatever, but at least they chose their own clothes. Grant Shapps gave his speech with his Light Blue Army behind him, each wearing the same rather unfashionable sweater. The corporate look went far too far. Frankly, it looked odd. Team Grant just out-geeked Team Ed.

Don’t expect a Tory revival in Scotland just yet

If you listened to David Cameron’s speech, you’d get the idea that he – with Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson – personally saved the Union with Scotland. Funny, that, given that it was Labour who were so enervated last week after their exertions. It’s a good job that this speech comes after the referendum as I can imagine that the SNP got a few more recruits on the back of it.

Content-rich conferences run risks, but are welcome none the less

Most of Labour’s front bench were limited to content-light speeches last week. Only Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham got to say anything interesting. The Conservatives have the advantage of being in office and getting to announce things. George Osborne’s announcements on in-work benefits are risky: they have been condemned though there has been little coverage of their lack of logic (Osborne is worried because benefits have risen faster than wages from a baseline of his choosing – but if wages have not kept up with the cost of living then in-work benefits are even more important to plug the gap.)

Have the Conservatives got complacent on the deficit?

They reckon they’ll eliminate it in 2018, and the rise in the 40 per cent threshold will presumably come into force then. Labour will call this a tax break for the well off, but the opposition could be more crafty in their analysis. A rise in 2018 doesn’t do much more than counter the fiscal drag over many years that has brought millions of people into what used to be the top rate of tax. Ed Balls – who needs to bring ABC1s to Labour if they are to win next year – would be clever to talk about how this supposed tax cut isn’t actually all it seems.

It’s a mark of failure for the Labour party that despite the massive rise in Government debt under the current administration – far more than under the Blair and Brown regimes – the public still trusts the party of Black Monday rather than the party that claimed to have abolished boom and bust.

But the fact that the Conservatives are better trusted on the deficit doesn’t mean that eliminating it will be easy. Rule out a squeeze on pensioners and your room for manoeuvre is limited. But if you’re at the bottom of the 40 per cent threshold, I wouldn’t bank on that tax cut in 2018. Expect more from all parties on this subject between now and…well, forever.

Off to Glasgow on Saturday…

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