Cuddly but not convincing

The Tories presented a more modern face at their party conference, but David Cameron's newfound pass

As I sat watching the debate on the economy at the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth, I couldn't help noticing something different about the delegates speaking from the platform. Gone were the grotesques of years past: the corpulent, sweat-soaked suburban bank manager or the armour-plated lady mayoress from the shires (though there were still plenty of both in the hall). Instead, we were treated to a parade of youthful, ethnically diverse Tories.

Sayeeda Warsi, the Muslim vice-chairman of the Conservatives, told the party it must develop an economic policy that spreads wealth to the most disadvantaged in society. Kwasi Kwarteng, a rising star recently selected for David Cameron's famed A-list of potential candidates, stirred delegates with his call to "explode the myth" of Gordon Brown's economic competence. Yet not all the speakers were quite on-message with Cameron's shift to the mainstream. One young City type pushed old buttons by arguing for an immediate end to inheritance tax, while a councillor barely out of his teens invoked the spirit of Norman Tebbit when he said a Conservative government should "tell these youngsters to get up off their backsides and find work". At least they looked the part.

Another speaker later told me that a middle-aged man with a comb-over hairstyle had attempted to speak in the debate, but was politely given the cold shoulder. "He looked a bit like the Leonard Rossiter character in Rising Damp. They told him he was on the list to be called, but I knew he didn't have a chance," my source said.

That same evening, the 2005 generation of MPs launched a book of essays on social exclusion at an event organised by Cameron's favourite think-tank, Policy Exchange. The Forgotten (subtitle: New Thinking on Society's Most Vulnerable People) includes seven short articles from the new intake of MPs, each on a different disadvantaged group. The best-known among them, Adam Afriyie, the MP for Windsor, writes movingly about the mentally ill; others have chosen diabetes, Aids orphans, the terminally ill, children in care and carers.

And yet, in an adjacent room, a group called Women2Win, which is pushing for more fe-male Tory MPs, waited in vain for an appearance by the party leader. Cameron's no-show came hours after he had pledged his equality and diversity credentials on the Today programme.

Watching the Tory party reaching out to the tired, poor, huddled masses of Britain is a surreal experience. Understandably, there is a desire abroad in the liberal press to see a more human Conservatism, but it is worth taking a step back. The essays in The Forgotten appear heartfelt, but the conclusions will do little to enhance the party's standing against Labour in the polls.

Afriyie's essay on depression includes a useful list of practical tips for dealing with the issue if it affects a member of your family. It calls on national figures to "speak freely about depression and mental-health disorders". The chapter on diabetes suggests working on a cross-party consensus on the issue, while the essay on care homes suggests bringing in the private sector. None of this is a challenge to the government. In one instance, that of terminal illness, such is the cross-party agreement that MPs seem ready to back the proposals from Anne Main, the Conservative MP for St Albans, to provide every person diagnosed with a terminal illness with information about the benefits he or she is due.

The Conservative Party's discovery (some would argue rediscovery) of social justice and civil liberties could be written off as a sideshow. This is not quite accurate. Cameron and those around him know that the party needs to show voters it has changed if it is ever again to become a viable proposition.

There are signs that the Tories are finally waking up to the depth of feeling against them in parts of the country. One young official told me it was only when she read Things Can Only Get Better, John O'Farrell's book about Labour's wil derness years, that she realised there were people out there who actually had a visceral hatred for the Conservatives because of what they did to working-class communities in the 1980s.

Loan sharks

There is a sense that social justice is a bolt-on to the Conservatives' main business, designed to reassure the public that it is no longer as brutal as it once was. They still get a little bit too excited about their newly discovered interest in the poor. I overheard Iain Duncan Smith, chairman of the party's social justice policy group, talking in horror to his entourage about the misery that loan sharks bring to poor people. "I mean, I said to them, 'The only interest rate they could get was 150 per cent.' I said, 'How could you ever pay that back?'" It is good to see that IDS has entered the real world at last, but Labour does not need to take lessons on inequality from this man.

From time to time I muse about how far the Conservatives would have to move to the left before NS readers might consider voting for them. On civil liberties, they already appear to be more in tune with liberal sentiment than the government. On control orders and 90-day detention without trial, they won the moral argument. As David Davis, the shadow home secretary, has said, the tension between security and liberty is often a false one; liberty can often be a guarantor of liberty. Tony Blair, in his speech to the Labour conference, and John Reid, in his statements since, have made plain their tactic to attack the Tories from the right on crime and security. The Home Secretary's suggestion that Britain might suspend legal restrictions on torture, in an article for the Sunday Times, shows how far the Blairites are prepared to go to outflank the opposition on this issue.

This is already unsettling the Tories' liberalising tendency. Some in the shadow cabinet are expressing increasing concern they are already being seen as soft. It is only a matter of time before Davis is forced into a retreat by colleagues with more authoritarian instincts. Already there are deep contradictions at the heart of the Tories' policy in this area: they claim to be the party of liberty and yet say they will repeal the Human Rights Act, an act of shameless populism even Reid has so far refused to contemplate.

Interesting silences

A clear strategy is emerging for how to deal with the Labour interregnum. The Tories know Blair and Reid will attack them from the right, while Brown will try to flush them out as old-style Thatcherites red in tooth and claw. They are vulnerable on both fronts, which is why Cameron will follow a "steady as she goes" line when parliament returns. The greening of the party will continue, as will the rhetoric about "the forgotten" and "society's most vulnerable".

More interesting will be the silences. I understand strict instructions have gone out not to mention immigration, for instance. This is not because there are plans afoot to shift the party towards an open-door policy on asylum. As one shadow minister told me, polling evidence already has the Tories well ahead of Labour on this. "We don't need to say a word because people already know we are tough on immigration. Michael [Howard] did the groundwork for us there in the last election campaign." A similar argument can be made about tax cuts - there is no need to shout about them because the public already knows the Tories are a tax-cutting party. The Cameroons know that, with the revolution they have engineered, they can be the "nasty party" and the "cuddly party" at the same time.

The centre ground is more crowded than it has ever been. Strangely, however, the party conferences have served to highlight the different priorities of the two main parties. For all the talk of civil war and succession in Manchester, there was a real buzz around the conference about Labour's record on tackling poverty. The minimum wage, Sure Start for young families in deprived areas, child poverty targets, education maintenance allowances for 16-year-olds - all these continue to be a matter of great pride to Labour activists. And so they should be.

The Tories have only just begun to think about what they would do to tackle inequality. There is little evidence that it will go much further than the occasional well-meaning pamphlet, however shocked Duncan Smith is by loan sharks. The Conservative Party doesn't look as ugly as it did even a year ago, but it is still along way from being attractive.