1. Labour set the agenda for this conference.
Ed Miliband might be preoccupied by his row with the Daily Mail about his father, but he can take heart that his shift to the left in Brighton last week had a huge influence over this Conservative party conference. This wasn’t just the cost of living agenda, which Tory ministers felt the need to rebut and respond to in their own speeches, but, as James explains in his politics column this week (get a sneak preview on Coffee House here), Ed Miliband has energised the Tories into being more determined than ever to beat Labour. David Cameron’s own speech contained 25 references to Labour, and he tried to deal with Ed Miliband in a number of ways, which I outlined here. Even though the circumstances of his row with the Mail are hardly ones Ed Miliband would wish on anyone, his decision to stand up to the paper means that he has rather overshadowed the Tories on the news agenda this week too.
2. The Tories believe they have enough evidence to show voters that it’s worth sticking with them in 2015.
It wasn’t that our essay crisis Prime Minister just forgot to put real policy in his speech: he deliberately pared it down to focus on what the party has done and his vision for the future. His threats about the dangers of Labour and his list of the things that the government had achieved (along with a bit of cheeky policy-nicking from the Lib Dems over rise in the personal allowance for income tax) are the two things the Prime Minister clearly wanted to appear on the 6 o’clock news bulletins tonight. The rest of the speech was largely about the joy of Conservatism and aimed at activists and MPs: no broadcaster is going to use the ‘Land of hope is Tory’ line, but it cheered the hall no end.
But significantly the Prime Minister also clearly thinks that thought the marriage tax break was necessary to placate his backbenchers, he also still believes that equal marriage was worth the fight. Otherwise he wouldn’t have said he was proud of the legislation in his Daily Mail article at the start of the conference.
3. David Cameron believes in compassionate Conservatism more than ever.
The only policy announcement – more of a hint that has grown legs since hacks demanded something solid from the speech – today was on benefits for the under-25s. Sounds old? It’s not quite the policy that David Cameron flew as a kite last June. In fact, the plan that the party is now touting as a 2015 manifesto commitment is not to bar under-25s from getting housing benefit full stop, but to remove this and jobseekers’ allowance from anyone under 25 who refuses work or training. This is less the targeting of the young that some critics painted the initial policy and more, as James said, pushy parenting from Cameron. Here’s an explanation.
The decision of the Prime Minister to call for applause for social workers as well as the armed forces underlines his own commitment to a modern, socially-concerned party. Although it was perhaps significant that he felt he could command a standing ovation for the latter but not the former.
But it’s more than that: the overarching theme of yesterday afternoon’s education and health speeches and a key theme of David Cameron’s speech today were that the Tories now want to be the party of social justice that speaks for working people and gives children from any home a choice of a good school. Cameron, Jeremy Hunt, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove are now all keen to tell Labour that it has no right to lecture the Conservatives on these ministers’ respective policy areas. The party now seems to quite fancy gaining the moral high ground. It’s just a shame the PM decided to use such a naff phrase, the ‘Land of Opportunity’, to illustrate this race to that high ground.
4. David Cameron is safe from the ambitions of his senior colleagues.
This hasn’t been a very newsy conference, but one of the most striking things about it was Boris Johnson’s decision to back Dave rather than brief openly against him. Of course, he couldn’t resist a joke about his old school contemporary kipping on a bed, but the Mayor of London has clearly accepted that a truce between the two men over the matter of what Boris’s destiny is will help the party. Instead Boris used his ConHome rally speech to warn voters off Ukip, deploying his unbridled joy at being a Conservative that makes the grassroots love him so. Meanwhile Theresa May didn’t stoke speculation, although she certainly put as much oomph as she could into her speech. And while George Osborne is back in the leadership race, his success has always depended on a smooth ending for Cameron anyway.
Backbenchers meanwhile were either absent or strangely cheery at the conference. Their lack of fury made the event appear a little sedated. But some still plan trouble for the autumn.
5. Ukip could still play a role in the Tory 2015 campaign.
Nigel Farage held his own parallel party conference around the fringes of this Tory event. He rather overdid it, actually, managing to annoy just the very Eurosceptic MPs that he wants to give a Ukip-style kitemark to by agreeing to not campaign against them in 2015.
Now, the Tory leadership has made abundantly clear that there will be no formal pact with Ukip, and that MPs who try to stand on any form of joint ticket agreed locally will lose the whip. But many on the right still want to harness the Ukip power in some way. If this leads to Farage standing down candidates in constituencies where he agrees with the local Tory MP, this means the man is still trying to shape the Conservative party from the outside. Tempted MPs should be careful what they wish for.Tags: Conservative conference 2013, Conservatives, David Cameron, UK politics