Sombre Tories

'The mood has been somewhat sombre as the first priority is to ensure stability in the banking and f

This year's conference has had a slightly different feel to it than those I have been to in recent years. To be precise there is a more serious atmosphere in and around the conference centre, not just on the main stage but in fringe events as well.

Usually conferences are a bubble, a miniature version of the Westminster village with political parties far more inward looking than at other times of the year. 2008 is distinctive with a lot more of time being spent studying events in America and working hard on policies that could help here at home.

The mood has been somewhat sombre as the first priority is to ensure stability in the banking and financial system. David Cameron has made it clear how vital it is that we leave political differences at the door. It is crucial that the political parties demonstrate maturity in tackling the current financial crisis.

As George Osborne left conference to have meetings with Alistair Darling, I was meeting developers from across the country to discuss the effects of the current economic situation on house-building.

The shocking truth is that completions of houses will almost certainly be under 100,000 this year and the consensus was that the situation would not improve next year either. With developers cutting back their activities and making redundancies, the knock on effects are obvious. It is vital that we set out coherent answers to these troubling times so the country can move forward. Meeting experts from all aspects of the housing industry and working with them on solutions to problems in their area is essential and conference has once again provided me with the perfect opportunities to discuss our policy progress.

Last night I did get a brief chance to relax at a dinner with my Westminster staff, past and present. The enthusiasm of the guys who work with me and with other Conservative members of Parliament never fails to inspire and it was a great opportunity to take time out and listen to what their thoughts and concerns are. Their optimism for the future of the country stems from a real belief that we as a party are demonstrating real plans for change and they are hungry for the chance to implement those changes. It is up to us as Parliamentarians to ensure that complacency does not creep in.

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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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