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'Muted optimism' is the theme

The Tory conference will be a sober affair: any signs of hubris are to be nipped in the bud

Last year Conservative delegates were positively encouraged to drink champagne, to show a "business as usual" attitude during the excruciating four-day wait for David Cameron's clincher speech. They did this with aplomb, standing outside the Imperial Hotel in Blackpool till the wee small hours, smiling, shivering, displaying the Dunkirk spirit that Tories are so good at.

This year there is a different feel. "We should be slightly cautious that it does not come over as hubris," says one senior MP. "We know that 12 months ago we were in the same boat they are now, it could all change. Look at Obama: I thought he had it in the bag."

The past decade has scarred many members of the party - which is a good thing, suggests an MP who expects the tone of his two fringe events to be, "not saying much but not being over gloomy I suppose". Realising the oddness of his comment, he adds: "We don't want to be seen as the death's head at the feast. Who wants to kick a twitching corpse?" This stricture not to be seen as happy has started talk of secret prohibition-style fun behind closed doors - all very Bugsy Malone. Muted optimism is a bit of a theme for the whole week, although the blue sky stage sets, a bit of upholstery and the green tree branding will remain.

After eleven years of opposition, most Tories are aware of what the government is going through. Interestingly, the Schadenfreude that was briefly enjoyed by the Conservatives when Gordon Brown's meltdown began is not now in evidence. Many are sorry for him, ranging from my friend's Tory mother, who wants to "send him a little note", to the shadow minister who thinks it's quite beastly how Labour MPs discuss their leader: "They talk about him like he is an ill dog, like he's deaf - it's getting uncomfortable, he's meant to be their clunking fist." Sympathy from the right . . . not good.

There will definitely be a lot of government-in-waiting front, more seriously than in previous years. To try and repeat what they did last time, George Osborne will come up with a big announcement on the economy. Heavyweight personalities will be pushed forward. The gentle Michael Gove and witty William Hague are conference favourites whose personalities fill halls fast.

Boris appears like a beacon to perk things up on Sunday afternoon. To date, Tories (and not just those who live in London) have been thrilled with the capital's mayor, seeing him as a ray of sunshine in these gloomy, apocalyptic times. There are rumours that his pass has been de-activated on Monday so that he has to return to London.

Frontline favourite Eric Pickles features on stage throughout the conference, often partnered with someone who may require a bit of light relief; Pickles playing the Eric Morecambe to their Ernie Wise. Pickles continues to be Tory gold, supplying the party with humour, and the grass roots with a hero.

One area where the party still suffers a shortfall is women. It will need to make sure that there are some strong female characters on stage this year. What it lacks in shadow cabinet members it will have to make up for by giving prominence to some of the formidable candidates it has, such as Louise Bagshawe and Penny Mordaunt.

Take a chance on Dave

Accreditation for Birmingham has been the busiest of any conference for years, with record numbers of companies taking stands. Accompanying the conference pass is a booklet from Birmingham City Council offering money-off vouchers for local restaurants, including the local strip bar The Rocket Club (entrance £5 before 11pm, a saving of £10).

Unlike the inhabitants of Blackpool, who often made it clear that the Tories were not completely welcome, Birmingham appears to be making an effort. The journey to Blackpool meant platform changes, no drinks trolley and inexplicable hold-ups. A rite of passage for every Tory was a bad Blackpool experience involving E.coli, insects and man-made fibres.

Rather than just turn up in a city, congregate and leave, Conservative Campaign HQ is keen to push the new city conference venues (next year it's Manchester) and plans to make the annual event more accessible. Birmingham's infrastructure will be discussed, and they also want to promote recently claimed local government seats in previously unwinnable parts of northern England.

"We know what it comes down to, it's not about Gordon, it's about us," says a Cameron aide. "Will the people look at Dave and George and think, 'Yes, I trust you with my money, I'm willing to give you a chance?'"

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008