Conference preview: Conservative Party
With the annual Conservative Party conference already warmed up, what can we expect from the main events from the remainder of the conference?
From an outsiders perspective, the Conservatives have had a pretty good year. They did well in the local council elections, they won the AV referendum vote, Labour aren’t offering a serious credible alternative and the Lib Dems have absorbed most of the blame from unpopular policies. However, when you look below the surface, the concerns are that there could be trouble on the horizon.
There are murmurings of discontent from Tory backbenches. First, they were annoyed with the way that Cameron treated them, now they are annoyed with their coalition partners, the Lib Dems. The 2010 intake in particular are more on the right wing of the party than most so they are not happy with the influence the Lib Dems are having. The issue of the EU could yet play its part in another Tory government. Another problem that David Cameron is facing, is the Conservatives haven’t quite completed their detoxification rebrand. They also know of a future problem they face having alienated women, a key voting constituency. The biggest problem they face is that of the economy. This government will live and die by its economic policy. These issues are not quite at the surface yet to be causing panic for the Conservatives, but they are close enough in sight to worry them. David Cameron might want to nip them in the bud, and lay the foundations to guide his party through them when they do arrive.
With much being made of the rebellious Tory backbenchers, any split in the party being closely examined, the boundary commission interfering with Conservative MP majorities and jobs, the issue of EU being discussed in places and a confrontation with the Tory heartlands over changes to the planning law in the offing, it would be easy for Cameron to deliver a conference speech appeasing those in his party. He must not do this.
The whips do not have the power they once did, especially with a number of ministerial posts earmarked for Lib Dem MPs. With modern media the way it is, it is possible for a politician to build a profile outside of the government. And with this government presiding over cuts which may leave a lasting, unpopular legacy, it may be wise for some MPs to put some distance between themselves and this regime. Politicians by nature, politics by trade. The backbenchers are hardly likely to start a mutiny. Another supposed headache, is seeing the majority of government ministers who have had a policy, have them u-turned on. When trying to look for cracks within the party over this, people have over-egged the point. Cameron may have dropped the policies, but he stuck by his politicians. In the old days under Blair, we would’ve had three cabinet reshuffles by now. The likes of Lansley and co will have just been glad to have managed to hold onto their jobs I feel. As for the Boundary Commission proposals, well as a proportion of their MPs they’re not doing too bad so they’ll pay that price – it is their policy after all.
The issue that many think will cause an eventual split in the coalition and maybe even the party, the EU, well, now is not the time for that to be happening. Most Tories know the damage the EU issue did to their party in the past, especially the new intake. They also know the Lib Dems are at the opposite end of the spectrum of the argument to them on this and so they are unlikely to gain much ground with whatever they propose. With no rows erupting over it just yet, it is unlikely that this will be an issue at this years conference. The final issue troubling the inside ranks of the Conservative Party, this issue about the planning law, I think they will survive either way. They have a lot of political capital in these heartlands (hence the term, heartlands), and those voters are unlikely to go to any of the two other major parties. I think they have calculated this risk and are willing to take the hit. Cameron can’t exactly come out and say this so it would make sense for him to just leave it alone.
For Conservative MPs and delegates alike, the thing that matters most to them is how they are doing in government. So for Cameron, he needs to act like the Prime Minister and address the nation. He should focus on the matters that matter most. My reckoning is that he will have left the economic burden with Osborne. He may touch on it, to show support to the Chancellor, but he has other issues to deal with too. At the forefront of it all should be that their detoxification branding is not yet complete. This should set the alarm bells off in Tory HQ. If they haven’t been able to do it up until now, then when will they be able to do it? As previously mentioned, they are presiding over some of the biggest cuts this country has ever seen. It is hardly a climate where they can make themselves out to be the nice Tory party. They do have relative success in the polls, but must know that this will not last. If it doesn’t get better for Labour, or gets worse, Ed Miliband will be replaced. The Lib Dems can hardly sink any lower in the polls and if the economy gets worse before it gets better, the Conservatives will be in a dangerous position to try any bold attempts to change their image. They will be too far in and too deeply attached to their current position by this time. So therefore the time for them to act is now. Can Cameron speak to those who are yet to be convinced, including women, by the Tories? It’s a tough ask, but now is the time to go after them.
Expect the Tories to position themselves for the future battle on the economy. References to “global factors” and the “world economy” will be rife throughout speeches which have even the remotest of links to the economy. Osborne announced a couple of policies in his speech, but expect more from him on that next month. The “worldwide problem” is the only line they have left for now, so it will be everywhere.
Boris Johnson’s appearance will be a particular highlight. With the London Mayoral election around the corner, will he continue to position himself against the government, at his own party’s conference? It will be very interesting to see what position he adopts, and it will perhaps give an insight into the themes for his upcoming election campaign.