According to Tim Bale’s exhaustive history of the post-Thatcher Conservative Party, just 300 faithful journeyed to the 2003 spring conference. Although Iain Duncan Smith had been the choice of the grass roots to replace William Hague, two years on, his leadership was unravelling, progress in the polls was negligible and there was little appetite for early-spring tub-thumping.
It feels like a different party now, if not in its underlying wish to lurch rightwards, then certainly in an overriding thirst for victory (temporarily?) trumping factional differences.
Consequently, the numbers in Brighton this weekend have been strong and a long queue snaked around the Metropole’s Durham Hall more than an hour before David Cameron, the fifth man to follow Thatcher, was due to speak.
Today saw the return of the noteless Cameron for the first time since the 2007 autumn conference. But in tone it felt more like the beauty contest speech he gave at conference two years earlier, when he was seeking the leadership of his party.
Now seeking leadership of the country, he promised frankness and openness, derided soundbites and sloganeering. And then delivered a series of soundbites and slogans. He talked of “compassionate conservatism”, of “change”; he said “I love the NHS”. He even rolled out “Vote blue, go green” (though no one applauded that one).
He didn’t say that “we can’t go on like this”, proving that the internet backlash his airbrushed pledge received has contaminated that particular line. But what he did say, at least a dozen times, was that the country didn’t want “another five years of Gordon Brown”.
It’s a line we’ll hear again and again and is designed as a counter to the tightening opinion polls. The Tory high command hope all this talk of a Labour comeback will focus minds and that change will win out.
The mood in the hall was warm but not electric, and the ovation at the end was barely 90 seconds long.