It’s been a dreadful conference for the Tories but they will still leave Birmingham happy

by Atul Hatwal

One wonders if the Tories can see how their conference has looked to the rest of Britain. Once upon a time in the mid-2000s they used it as a platform to speak to the country. It was an opportunity to demonstrate how they had changed. There was talk of voting blue to go green, civil liberties and hugging hoodies.

The rank and file might have been unhappy but the message to the general public couldn’t have been clearer: “we are not the same old Tories, we have changed, we live in the modern world.”

These last few days have been like looking at the photo negative of days gone by: cutting workers’ rights, slashing benefits and battering burglars.

The pre-briefing about this conference focused on the Tories new magic word “striver.” In itself it’s a good idea; aspiration and hard-work will never be out of political fashion.

But the Tories seem to have got confused.

Tough messages on law and order and benefits might be perennially popular but without some balance in other areas like civil liberties or the economy it all begins to look decidedly familiar. More red meat vicar?

It’s as if the Tory political managers have given up on ever returning to those halcyon days when the words “progressive” and “Conservative” were routinely used in the same sentence. They have meekly accepted their slide back into the comfortable embrace of the past.

For the Tories, uniquely of all of the parties, the only audience that matters at their conference is not out in the country, but sat in the hall.

The media management seems to have slipped as well. The evening before the David Cameron’s big speech, coverage about what he will say on the news bulletins was diluted with discussion about the wording of the question for the Scottish independence referendum.


Scottish independence is an important issue and David Cameron will be sitting down with Alex Salmond on Monday to discuss it, but why were the prime minister’s press people letting this cut across their core message on Tuesday evening?

Their task should have been to frame the speech and set expectations that are then wildly exceeded. Meandering between disconnected messages is yet another sign of the general lackadaisical attitude to their image which has suffused everything about the Tories at this conference.

“Who cares what you think” would have been a more apposite slogan for the week.

As a performer, David Cameron is still capable of rising above his party and connecting with the country. Achieving the leadership of your party and becoming prime minister are feats which command respect.

But when he gets up to speak, his party’s performance in Birmingham will have already reinforced the doubts in many about the centrist positioning that carried him (just) into Number 10.

Yet for all of this, Cameron does still have one card left to play that can rescue his week, and play it he will.

For many Labour supporters watching the speech there will be unbound incredulity when David Cameron says “deficit” for the first time. Twitter will light up with angry denunciations of how the deficit has actually been rising for five months because of the disastrous lack of growth.

All true. But politics is a comparative business. It doesn’t matter how bad David Cameron is on the deficit if the public think that Ed Miliband will be worse.

Cameron will cling to the deficit in his speech as a drowning man grasps passing floatsam.  And worst of all, it will work. He will stay afloat.

For the public viewing the speech, despite their worries about the Tories, for all their fears of what these happy slashers will do to the country, they will listen, and many will continue give him the benefit of the doubt.

That Cameron’s deficit con trick will still work, even after this year’s economic news, will be down to one reason: the Labour party’s inability to persuade voters we are more competent on the economy. The failure, so far, to persuade the country that we would never allow reckless spending to threaten the finances.

In spite of a week where their conference has seemed flat and a party platform that at times has almost shouted “we are the same old Tories”, David Cameron and his followers will depart Birmingham happy.

The one issue sustains their political fortunes: without the deficit David Cameron would be John Major in 1997; with it, he looks a lot like John Major in 1992.

Atul Hatwal is editor at Uncut

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2 Responses to “It’s been a dreadful conference for the Tories but they will still leave Birmingham happy”

  1. Rallan says:

    Hmm. A very weak article, Atul. You normally produce interesting, sensible pieces (even if I disagree) but the last few have been real stinkers.

    Come on, you can do better than this.

  2. uglyfatbloke says:

    Cameron was doing damage control on the Scottish referendum and has essentially neutralised it as a news item. Given the result of the last Scottish election, Cameron’s really not had a leg to stand on and Salmon has got everything he wanted. The best Cameron can claim is that he got a ‘single question’ ballot, but that’s what Salmond preferred anyway – he only wanted to look like he was prepared to offer what most people want.
    Labour has thrown away the opportunity to regain dominance in Scotland by failing to adopt FFA – in fact, if the Tories had adopted FFA they would now be polling better in Scotland than at any time in the last fifty years and might even be on their way to displacing Labour as the second party in Scotland. Thankfully, they are not that bright.

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