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4 October 2007

Rigor mortis smiles

The prospect of a snap election has injected some steel into Tories, as Tara Hamilton-Miller reports

By Tara Hamilton-Miller

It’s 4am and, standing outside the Imperial Hotel in Blackpool, the Tory delegates are animated, drinking champagne. It’s been an odd few days to decipher. After weeks of speculation about the state of the party they have made the soul- destroying trip to Blackpool to mingle, eat very little and drink a lot. The talk is of possible election dates, how bad the food is and relief they will not return to Blackpool.

The throng, sipping pink Taittinger, are of all ages and are determined to have a good time. It’s what Tories do best. An exhausted broadcaster who has covered all three conferences observes: “There is no doubt that the Tories know how to enjoy themselves. They are smarter, younger, funnier, sexier and better dressed.”

For about 12 years, the right has gathered every year in a seaside town to misbehave – four days of playground tittle-tattle during which even the most reasonable of local councillors can be dragged into a personality assassination of the latest leader. The Conservatives are used to it now. They have perfected the dewy-eyed standing ovation for someone they will knife the next day, no one knows why. Longing for Margaret? Boredom? Guilt about Hague?

This year is different. Cameron’s MPs, opinionated Tory grandees and irritable grass-roots members have put any less-than-loyal mumblings on hold. Could it be they have finally caught on to the idea of unity? The possibility of an election and the good behaviour of the likes of Alan Milburn and Peter Mandelson at the Labour conference have convinced the troublemakers to curb their conduct. Even the usually loathsome weather has behaved.

Tories wander around commenting about how fine everything is, how confident the mood is. Faces have a slight rigor mortis smile to them; delegates go from speech to fringe meeting with a dazed look, like those in the final pages of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume. Brows remain unfurrowed and faces calm, as if the entire horde at the Winter Gardens had been botoxed to within an inch of its life.

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On Sunday evening, Cameron’s speechwriting team of Steve Hilton and Danny Kruger were ensconced in the leader’s suite at the Imperial. The first draft was too long at 12,000 words, so they were up into the early hours meticulously slashing it. “The danger is you have to cover everything without making it look like a shopping list, but you don’t want to lose the theme,” said an aide. By Monday evening, a strategist said the speech was written, noting: “This is not a manifesto. It’s about so much more than just the text – it’s about the delivery. Dave gave an electrifying delivery two years ago.” And yet Cameron himself recalls that same speech with less enthusiasm, telling a close friend recently: “It wasn’t that good. I’m always quite surprised it went down so well.”

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As the conference gathered pace, shadow cabinet members expressed increasing relief at how the policy announcement was going down in the hall. One senior MP was keen to add some perspective: “We may be happier, but people are not glued to their screens at home watching this. Yes, delegates will leave in much better heart than when they arrived – but they are Tories. It’s the rest of the country we need to seduce.”

One backbench MP who, because of boundary changes, is terrified at the prospect of a general election, also said: “The idea you can turn everything round in three days is ridiculous. I don’t care what Dave did in 2005. This is completely different. The party has let Gordon Brown run riot, let him get away with stealing our policies. William Hague nailed it in 30 minutes. Why wasn’t that done six months ago?”

The Tories have been taking the prospect of an election very seriously. In fact, they have selected more candidates than Labour and they are divided between those who desperately need a few months for Brown to falter and those who are like coiled springs and want a fight now. On the first full day of the conference, Cameron pulled all his candidates into a 40-minute meeting at the Imperial to reassure them that the party machine was ready. A female candidate said: “David was keen to point out if there is not an election, we have lost nothing, we have not shown our hand too early.” There is an endearing camaraderie among many of the hopefuls as they sit in coffee areas of the ghastly Winter Gardens with their laptops, exchanging horror stories and putting finishing touches to their election literature.

The Tories will not weep to leave Blackpool. It has never been a particularly giving hostess, but it has its quirks. On Monday, Michael Ash croft and William Hague were locked in conversation, leaning against the colourful window of Vibe ladies’ boutique, a backdrop of feather boas, sparkly boob tubes and leather peephole dresses. On the same day, Bella Italia restaurant opposite the Winter Gardens told a ravenous Boris Johnson the oven and hob were broken, so although he was welcome for lunch, it would have to be salad. The blond one courteously declined.

The conference was as good as could have been expected. The masses behaved; if they are to have a hope in hell, that must continue. John Major once said: “These days, when the Tory army gets into difficulty, it forms a circle, raises its rifles, turns inwards and opens fire.” This has been a week of serious speech-making. If there is an election, the troops will not turn on each other.