The notion of “the mood” of the Tory party conference is harder to judge nowadays, when only one in four people here are actually Tory activists. But those I do speak to are quite upbeat. They shouldn’t be, really: the polls are pretty grim, the IMF has today underlined the depressing economic situation. But this has nonetheless feels like a conference fizzing with life. Crucially, this is because of the fringes – not the conference hall. The conversations in the pubs and bars are about events people saw outside the secure zone. Sure, you might get the odd person talking about Osborne’s speech – which was well-received – or making Boris jokes. Or even Andrew Mitchell jokes: at a CSJ fringe, I asked Iain Duncan Smith earlier about rumours that Mitchell will be made High Commissioner to Rwanda and he replied “I hear there are no gates in Rwanda”. The room loved it. And it was a packed room, people standing even outside the door wanting to hear a politician’s thoughts on welfare reform.
The main attraction has, I think, been the fringes. A remarkably good intake of MPs at the 2010 election means the Conservatives have dozens of MPs people who are worth listening to because of who they are – not what they do. I tried to get into a ‘Britannia Unchained’ fringe event, where MPs in the Tory Free Enterprise Group were speaking, and you could not even get your head in the door.The above grainy picture is the best my iPhone could manage – the below is all that was visible from eye level.
So what all does this mean? Perhaps that the intellectual leadership of the party has now passed to its back benches. The best ideas are coming from MPs who have actually achieved things before coming to parliament; people who don’t need position to have clout. People who can pull in a crowd on their own basis, because the have genuinely interesting things to say. Even Andrea Leadsom had people coming to hear her talk about QE. I find all this a hugely encouraging trend, showing a huge interest in politics – but more the politics on the fringe, not the politics being served up on the conference floor. And this is what the 2012 Conservative Conference may well be remembered for.