Postcard from Manchester: the only way is down

Conference brochure cover
Conference brochure cover

If you follow these kinds of things, you’ll already know that the Tories made a rather serious pitch for the centre ground, and that David Cameron’s potential successors have already started bidding for his job. The result was a conference that looked towards the future, rather than a celebration of the shock general election victory. And by ‘looked towards the future’ I mean in the knowledge that this time, autumn 2015, may be as good as it gets.

After a summer in which Labour’s internal divisions have been paraded in front of the public, it was perhaps a little refreshing to hear Conservatives refer to their own ‘headbangers’ – and to watch one of the same work himself up into a frenzy during a fringe debate. I am not sure that Labour’s right and the Tory left really have more in common with each other than with their own party’s extremes, but it’s a reminder that some of the differences between the centrists can be synthetic. Andrew Adonis’ involvement in the National Infrastructure Commission, which we discussed last week, should be seen in this context.

One of the chief spinners of synthetics is the prime minister himself. Mr Cameron made a speech that has been described as one of his best, reminding his party that he remains more popular than the rest. But his passage about his Labour opposite number showed Mr Cameron at his worst. The PM repeated the semi-quote in which Jeremy Corbyn referred to the assassination of Osama bin Laden, and did so in a way that wrongly suggested that Mr Corbyn supported the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The problem is not in itself that Mr Cameron smeared Mr Corbyn; it would be better if politicians refrained from that but all sides do it. The problem is that in including that passage and repeating an allegation he knows to be incorrect, Mr Cameron gives the impression that he is either an idiot, or does not care about the truth, or both. His rather cheeky suggestion to his party that they were all with him in the trenches on equal marriage is similarly eye-catching, and not in a particularly good way. Many people claim not to trust Mr Cameron, and it reminds them why they do not. He will never again need their support. But to the extent that the speech was meant to re-define Cameronism, and so it is not clear what purpose was served by devaluing it in this way.

If the atmosphere seemed a little flat (though I did hear one champagne cork pop in the Midland Hotel bar) it did not seem to be because of the protests outside. Colleagues from other charities or public affairs professionals who were not Conservatives seemed more affronted than the actual targets of abuse. The protests masked the very real divisions in the party about the real effects of the cuts to tax credits for the working poor. The party also knows that this time next year it will be arguing with itself over the European Union, with the future integrity of the UK itself once again up for grabs.

This was the week that saw the death of Geoffrey Howe, following on from that of Denis Healey: giants of post-war politics. BBC TWO showed Michael Cockerill’s biography of Healey (recommended, but on iPlayer only until this evening): it showed footage of Shirley Williams, then still in Labour, protesting about how the far-left of her party were calling her and other Labour MPs ‘Tories’. (So some things don’t change.) Healey and Howe were the first Chancellors to set their faces against Keynesian economics, as the post-war consensus shattered. Their passing coincides as the European neo-liberal consensus that replaced it has become less and less popular. Bracing political winds are on their way, and the attendees at Manchester knew it.

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