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Cameron fantasises about the next big push while the troops struggle

The further down the Conservative Party hierarchy you go, the more despondency you find.

The annual party conference season reveals so much about politics and so little. The paradox has a simple explanation. When assembled in one place, the tribe is available for closer, sustained observation. Yet a tiny proportion of voters are members of political parties, so the spectacle feels more like a holiday from the electorate than anything very relevant to it. There is always something to be learned from these gatherings but it is not usually the message that party leaders advertise. What was it this year?

Lib Dems miss the moral high ground
While the junior coalition party was meeting in Brighton, tales of Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative Chief Whip, allegedly calling a police officer a “fucking pleb” dominated the headlines. Many Lib Dems didn’t seem to mind their demotion down the news agenda and revelled in the Tories’ discomfort. Ministers made “pleb” jokes in their speeches. “I’m a pleb” badges became a must-have conference accessory.

Lib Dems cherish outbreaks of Tory nastiness, hoping their own status as agents of niceness in the government will be bolstered. Yet, by the end of the week, senior party figures were worrying that anti-Tory glee was getting out of control. Their concern is that promoting the idea of Tories as irredeemably unpleasant sours coalition relations and makes it harder to explain why the Lib Dems are in the coalition at all.

Nick Clegg’s strategists talk about “resilience” as the quality that voters will come to admire in the party. They are banking on the emergence of “grudging respect” for a leader who has endured multiple humiliations but not wavered in his determination to govern. Opinion polls don’t show much sign of that happening.

The party is “battle-weary”, in the words of one senior adviser. “[Lib Dems] long to feel good about themselves again.” The leadership thinks that self-respect can be acquired through dogged determination to carry on governing. The absence of any rebellion against Clegg suggests that the party is willing to give it a go for a while longer. Still, Lib Dem delight in watching Tories squirm suggests the lure of righteous opposition anger is getting stronger.

Ed Miliband really is the Labour leader
Ed Miliband delivered his big speech in Manchester with a thespian fluency of which many had previously thought him incapable. It was rapturously received in the hall and kindly reviewed elsewhere. It gave delegates hope that they might be able actively to promote the idea of the Labour leader as a potential prime min­ister, instead of dodging accusations that he doesn’t fit the part.

A notable enthusiast was Ed Balls, who told a fringe meeting that it was the finest speech he had heard from a Labour leader in 20 years. That hyperbole says more about the shadow chancellor’s need to show loyalty than it does about recent standards of political oration.

A persistent topic of speculation among Labour MPs is whether Miliband should move Balls from the Treasury brief. If the leader wants to look strong, while also signalling a break from the past, the obvious device – so the anti-Balls lobby surmises – is to despatch Gordon Brown’s former right-hand man. Such folly, says the pro-Balls camp, would put Lab­our’s economic policy in disarray and disinter old enmities that Miliband’s team boasts of having buried.

There is no evidence that Miliband plans to carry out such a manoeuvre before the election but the chatter has reached sufficient volume
to provoke new collegiality in Balls. “He’s not like Gordon,” says one former critic of the shadow chancellor on the front bench. “He knows what the negative views are and will do whatever it takes to change them.”

That all means that Miliband is enjoying his highest level of job security since winning the leadership in 2010. The sceptics in his party are not entirely won over. They acknowledge that he has proved himself capable of raising his game; they await proof he can keep it raised.

Morale is low on the Conservative front lines
The impatience of many Tory MPs for more Euroscepticism and harsher measures on crime, welfare and immigration from their leader is well known. What should alarm the Prime Minister is how little thanks he gets when he accedes to those demands, as inevitably he does.

Such ingratitude is part of a cycle that began when David Cameron failed to win a majority in 2010 and that systematically erodes his authority. He based his appeal to the country on a claim not to be a typical Tory and to be remaking the party in his image. Since that approach is deemed to have failed and the Prime Minister’s popularity is falling, the party has decided to try the formula the other way around – to insist that it is Cameron who must constantly change.

There were no violent eruptions of disloyalty during the Conservative party conference in Birmingham because backbench MPs sense they are winning their tug of war with Downing Street – but the further down the party hierarchy you go, the more despondency you find. Local councillors talk in bleak terms about the cuts they are forced to make. Many resent the national council tax freeze, which deprives them of an emergency device to patch up essential services. They fear that hastily implemented welfare reforms will land them with rent arrears in social housing and homeless families to accommodate. “It is all doom and gloom,” says one council leader of the mood on the ground.

Common complaints are that the party machine is rusty, that its central office is staffed with lightweights and that Labour campaign teams are more motivated and better organised. There is little progress in developing a plan to win back long-lost voters in the north of England and Scotland and among minority communities.

These are not gripes about ideological direction: they are the grumbles of a demoralised infantry whose commanding officers are miles from the front, fantasising about the next big push and apparently unaware their ill-equipped troops are struggling just to hold the line.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special