When David Cameron made his last visit to Blackpool in 2005 it was to make a speech that would change his life. He returns now to do it all again and this speech is equally, if not more, important.
Cameron’s office and Conservative campaign headquarters watched Gordon Brown’s speech in Bournemouth and concluded, to their relief, that it was less than memorable. Party operatives, usually worked into such a frenzy on these occasions that they bark at the office televisions, found Brown’s tepid address of reannouncements and religion uninspiring. (Such a change from the Tony Blair days, when staff would have to disguise gushes of admiration and urges to spring to their feet and applaud.) Trying to gauge the feel of this first post-Blair gathering, one HQ staffer commented: “It doesn’t feel like a conference, it feels like a coronation.”
The day after Brown’s address, the Conservative Parliamentary Party was summoned, not, it is said, for a panic meeting, but in a call for unity. Still left guessing about Brown’s early election intentions, Cameron used his get- together with his MPs to try to settle his party, to remove as many jitters as possible. A strategist says: “We are ready for a plethora of rumours. Brown’s camp will inevitably have a plan of disruption. We are prepared for daily stunts throughout the week.”
One sight that did raise eyebrows was the vision of the turncoat toff defector Quentin Davies, paraded on Labour’s stage, name-checking two Tory spin doctors and revealing their combined salaries. This was seen as hugely distasteful. Those who know/knew Davies are convinced this was not something he would have said himself. “He was put up to that. It was painful to watch, but was a clear indicator of how dirty they are willing to play,” says a former colleague.
Each member of the shadow cabinet has been assigned a role for conference. William Hague, grass-roots favourite, will perform the Michael Heseltine-style barnstormer on the opening day. In a crowd-pleaser to rally the troops and create a positive mood, he’ll use all the best gags from a year of lucrative after-dinner speeches. Caroline Spelman will deliver a measured approach designed not to upset or anger the delegates, who will adore her neat, calm hair and toffee-coloured linen trouser suits that don’t crush.
Aware that his last outing in Blackpool was not his finest hour, David Davis will pull out all the stops. Expect Jean Michel Jarre-style lighting and a tough, gritty video clip of the shadow home secretary, before he flings all 79kg of his fighting weight on to the stage in a fug of testosterone.
Cameron has been advised to return Brown’s compliment and avoid talk of the Prime Minister in his speech. He has been told that viewers will want to see what he is like and what he really stands for. An aide says: “There will be a bit of good cop/bad cop going on. George Osborne [shadow chancellor] will get his conker out and duff up the government. He’ll be the one to fire at Gordon, not David.” Cameron is being advised to talk about traditional Tory issues but in a modern way (where did we hear that phrase before?). His aim will be not to ignore immigration, tax and Europe, but to deal with them in a way that does not reinforce the negative stereotype. This will take more than a tweak of the brand image.
Aides insist that the election rumours, tirelessly spun by the Brown team, have not disrupted HQ in the way the PM may have hoped. “Those who think we have been forced to reveal more are wrong. If he calls an election it will not be snap – we are primed,” says a strategist. All staff are in place and Michael Ashcroft has his team guiding candidates. Most of the press officers and researchers are savvy, seasoned staff with experience.
One Cameron adviser sums up the challenge. “What is it that will make the British people dump Brown for Cameron? Why should the voter risk everything for someone whom we now concede could be perceived as too in experienced? How do we get this voter?”
He adds: “Admittedly, the pressure is immense. We need to show the country Dave is ready for government. We intend to make a virtue of his youth, show that he is the future and dislodge Gordon’s authority.”
One area the “modern” Tories might want to consider for next year’s conference in Birmingham is the possibility of crèche provision. A party so concerned with Quality of Life is the only party not to provide childcare facilities at its conference. Two breastfeeding party A-listers are unable to attend for that reason this year. One new mother thinks it reflects badly: “I’m not expecting a free crèche – I’d just like the organisers to acknowledge that there are members of childbearing age and that the party needs to provide for them.” And she’s married. The perfect advertisement for the party. Apparently not.