Reflections from Manchester

Are the Tories "ready"?

The weather over the Labour and Conservative conferences was the reverse of the parties' moods. In Brighton, Labour gathered amid a sense of panic but bathed in seaside sun. Here in Manchester, the mood is calmer as the Tories prepare for power in the dreary autumn rain.

Are the Tories right to be upbeat? On the face of it, yes. David Cameron has carefully and skilfully led his party through a period of success not seen for ten years. As I discuss in my column tomorrow, he has done so without abandoning ideology, unlike the Labour Party when it was modernising itself.

George Osborne's speech on the economy yesterday was well received, his uncharismatic style compensated for by the realism and modesty of his message.

But beneath the gloss, this is the same old party: on the fringes, delegates express predictable views on immigration, Europe and spending. Their spectacles may have thicker and trendier rims, but Tory members remain overwhelmingly male and -- in the description of one broadcast journalist yesterday -- "hideously white".

On the other hand, although this party has not changed substantially, there is almost zero dissent or division. With victory perceived to be round the corner, this is the most united Tory conference I can remember. Eurosceptics are careful not to be provoked into deriding Cameron's own-goal on a Lisbon Treaty referendum. And MPs on the pro-European left are passive. The Tory Reform Group/Conservative Mainstream fringe has in recent years been a hotbed of rebellion and dissent, with Kenneth Clarke or Michael Heseltine challenging the leadership. This year a supportive Damian Green was on loyal form, refuting claims that Cameron has betrayed the Tory left. Steve Norris, the arch-moderniser, expressed genuine support for Cameron's leadership on and off the record. And it was left to Normal Lamont to say Labour could yet pull off an economic and then political recovery.

The Tories appear to be ready to take office. But there is something indefinably wrong here. Something about the collective psche that betrays complacency. This is a professional party, but it is not a government-in-waiting.