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So conference season is over, at least for the RSA. We had another good turnout with the Conservatives yesterday evening, which means each event has attracted over 150 people. After years and years of party conferences I can’t help feeling that doing one big event is infinitely preferable to putting on the kinds of programmes other think tanks host. A game to play when browsing through the fringe guide is to identify the most boring fringe meeting and the one which the think tank has most obviously just done just for the sponsorship: ‘Plastic recycling; time for a new paradigm’, ‘light transit rail systems; thinking out of the box’. When they retire the people who plan fringe meetings could get jobs choosing the name of hairdressers or fish and chip shops prone as they are to clunking puns: ‘Let’s go Higher baby; the case for university expansion’ or ‘Who cares wins; why nursing homes need a new deal’. Finally, there are the titles that imply the fringe meeting will change the world but betray their inevitably blandness: ‘Children; they are our future’, ‘Climate catastrophe – isn’t it time to act?’.

So conference season is over, at least for the RSA. We had another good turnout with the Conservatives yesterday evening, which means each event has attracted over 150 people. After years and years of party conferences I can’t help feeling that doing one big event is infinitely preferable to putting on the kinds of programmes other think tanks host. A game to play when browsing through the fringe guide is to identify the most boring fringe meeting and the one which the think tank has most obviously just done just for the sponsorship: ‘Plastic recycling; time for a new paradigm’, ‘light transit rail systems; thinking out of the box’. When they retire the people who plan fringe meetings could get jobs choosing the name of hairdressers or fish and chip shops prone as they are to clunking puns: ‘Let’s go Higher baby; the case for university expansion’ or ‘Who cares wins; why nursing homes need a new deal’. Finally, there are the titles that imply the fringe meeting will change the world but betray their inevitably blandness: ‘Children; they are our future’, ‘Climate catastrophe – isn’t it time to act?’.

The Conservative delegates were a very normal and mixed bunch, which is very different from the people I met at my first Tory conference in 1994. There was the inevitable contribution from a breathless, young, free market enthusiastic asking why the Conservatives wouldn’t nationalise the NHS. But this, and Peter Hitchens’ attack on Cameron, the BBC and the liberal elite, were greeted with minimal enthusiasm. Instead it was an earnest debate in which most of the questions would have come just as easily from the delegates at either of the other conferences. The attack on Labour seemed rather muted, mainly focussing on Government bureaucracy and the Michael Gove line that while Tony Blair was trying to do the right thing, Gordon Brown has abandoned reform.

Until a few days ago it might have seemed that the Conservatives didn’t need to articulate much of a critique of Labour so deep was the evidence already of disenchantment. But just as happened last year conference season is seeing a change in the political weather. Labour is looking decisive over the banking crisis and, whatever their disagreements about the detail, the Conservatives aren’t articulating a coherent alternative. Given all the other things going on in the world it may be difficult for David Cameron’s team to get much traction with the several new policy documents they are planning to unveil this week.

The other Tory attack line is the assertion that Britain is broken. Conservatives say that this is not an alarmist argument but perhaps they should tell the Sun. The tabloid has a broken Britain fringe and has festooned Birmingham with lurid posters featuring a hooded teenager thrusting a knife towards the camera.

Evidence that the Conservatives have to deal with a new context is underlined by the same newspaper choosing today as its front page story an attack on Barclays bankers for taking an all-expenses break in Monte Carlo in the midst of the credit crunch. It is too early to say whether the current crisis will translate into a more general backlash against the values of financial capitalism but the fact that our most popular newspaper is now reviling bankers in a way previously reserved for loony left councils, benefit ‘scroungers’ or asylum seekers must be a sign of the times.

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