In advance of the Conservative Party Conference


Off to Birmingham on Sunday for the third of our Party conference fringe meetings held in partnership with the World at One and IPSOS MORI. I’m hoping Conservative conference will prove to be less stressful for me than was Labour’s.

If I was a Conservative (cue malicious laughter among my remaining Labour friends) I would see next week as offering a big opportunity and a growing threat.

Given the polls and the general morale of the Party, Labour’s conference was a success. But it was a success secured against a modest objective – keeping the Party together and giving Gordon Brown more time to turn things round.

Achieving this was a necessity. If at a time like this the Party had looked like it was eating itself, the voters would have been unforgiving. As it is Labour has had a small poll bounce.

But what Labour really needed to have any hope of making the next election competitive was a conference that connected with the public at large.

They missed this target because they were never really aiming for it. Indeed, the expressions of satisfaction among Labour politicians and activists that they got through the week may grate with the growing number of people - worried about their homes, bills and jobs - who aren’t sure how they are going to get through the next few months.

This is the Tories’ opportunity. Their message can be simple: ‘Labour spent the week talking to itself, we will spend our week talking to the nation’.

Someone who saw David Cameron speak in recent days told me the absence of references to Labour was noticeable in a speech which was pitched directly to popular concerns about the state of both economy and society.

If the Conservatives can make this contrast with Labour, it will go a long way to cementing their lead.

The threat to David Cameron is a growing impatience with the lack of policy clarity. The time for speculative working papers and commissions is over; people want to know what the Conservatives’ first Queen’s Speech will contain.

Yet, the signs are that the Conservatives still see little purpose being served by policy elaboration. One bright special advisor to a Tory front bencher reports his frustration at rarely getting any response to the many policy ideas he puts forward. Lobby groups from business and NGOs find the Conservatives’ enthusiasm to share platforms and brands unmatched by the desire to discuss or resolve policy questions.

I have, for example, spoken to several business interests trying fruitlessly to get a handle on the Conservatives’ approach to public sector commissioning and contracting out.

Press commentators are now picking up on this. Mixing his metaphors one said to me ’next week we will be on waffle watch, warm words may go down well in the hall, but the refrain from the press corps will be ‘where’s the beef?’.

So the public want connection while the press and policy community want substance. A difficult balance but the kind of thing a party needs to achieve if it wants to move from effective opposition to Government-in-waiting.

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