Conservatives can send only one official observer to the Labour party conference, which is a shame because a few days in the febrile, fratricidal atmosphere in Manchester would have been a tonic to Tory spirits. From the bar of the Radisson hotel, one could witness plotting of the most poisonous and spectacular kind. Rival camps would nod to each other across the room, even as they cheerfully briefed against each other. The instinct for self-preservation seemed to be draining from this party, leaving behind the most extraordinary opportunity for David Cameron.
As they gather for their conference next week in Bournemouth, the Conservatives intend to move to a new phase which they describe, rather obviously, as a ‘focus on Britain’ rather than the party. Debates will be held for each of the six policy groups. There will be reports from some of the hundreds of participants in Oliver Letwin’s various teams. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the party’s best ideological scouts are among the Labour delegates who left Manchester on Thursday.
The governing party has not lost its ability to produce political ideas, but has lost the appetite to consume them. At this conference John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary, said, in terms, that two-parent families are better than lone-parent arrangements. No serious attack on child poverty can ignore this stark truth, he added. His party was utterly unmoved. Alan Milburn spoke about the duty to consumerise public services as far as possible — anathema to the Chancellor, who proposes an independent NHS board precisely to ensure that there is no such reform. His party, tired of upheaval and still in hock to the public sector unions, nods its head.
As a result, the Conservatives can now use the Labour party modernisers as truffle-hunters use dogs — to sniff out ideological treasure that they themselves have no appetite to eat. John Reid’s thoughts on counter-terrorism, and David Miliband’s belief in ‘double devolution’ — transferring power not just from central to local government, but from the town hall to the individual — are ideas that could help to win the next election. But they are ideas which the introspective Labour party no longer has the strength or inclination to pursue.
In his valedictory conference speech, Mr Blair was precisely right to say the new information age has left the public hungry for power rather than leadership. Voters do not ask ‘Which politician will do things for me?’ but ‘Who will give me the power so I can do things for myself and my family?’ Yet Mr Brown sees the election very differently, as an interview for an all powerful chief executive of Britain plc. Voters, he says, will ask on ballot day, ‘Who has the experience, who has the skills?’
Mr Cameron can respond next week by saying that Britain neither wants nor needs a Great Helmsman. This is the fatal flaw in the Brown proposition: an ingenious country should not need to be constrained by a five-year plan. Rather, it craves liberation. If the Conservatives can express a rival view of national life that coheres, they will be in a strong strategic position to defeat Mr Brown. ‘Our ideas will win the election — the question is which party will win with them,’ complained one Blairite Cabinet member. ‘We are trying to save the party. If Gordon rejects this, he will have written David Cameron’s manifesto.’
Anyone who was at the Tory conference in 2003 and observed the dying days of Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership would have instantly recognised the mood in Manchester. In the evening, people introduced themselves as campaign managers for internal party elections not due for months. Unofficial counts are being kept of who is backing whom for the deputy leadership: Peter Hain apparently has 52 supporters in his campaign to be deputy leader, of whom 15 are ministers. No. 10 is actively promoting Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, for party leader — thereby hedging its bets over John Reid, the unexpected star of Frank Luntz’s Newsnight/Times focus groups.
But what was most striking about the conference was the violent metaphors used by both sides. ‘Why am I trying to kill Gordon? Because he’s trying to kill the Prime Minister,’ one leading ally of Mr Blair explained to me. ‘The Blairites have dynamite strapped to their waists. The only question is whether they detonate,’ says a Brownite Cabinet member. Thus it continues — the blood feud drowning out all official calls for unity. Both sides talk and act as if engaged in a battle to the death.
Against such circumstances, what is left for the Conservatives to do next week? The main task is to present a united front. If Labour has lost the gift of unity, Mr Cameron will have to show that his party has genuinely rediscovered it. This will be no mean feat, given that three quarters of the party membership refused to vote in his ‘built to last’ ballot. For the last 15 years the Conservative party conference has served as a gladiatorial arena for warring party factions. Transforming it into a tranquil debating forum, the meeting place of a stable and functioning political party, will be an achievement in itself.
In Manchester, Labour held several ‘How do you solve a problem like Cameron?’ fringe debates where delegates grudgingly admitted the power of his youth and charisma. Such qualities are all the more dangerous to a party about to be led by a man who so conspicuously lacks them. One fringe meeting concluded that it is time to agree a line of attack on Mr Cameron and to start the assault now, caricaturing him as a spin-doctor with no policies and no defining vision.
It is a charge which Mr Cameron needs to answer this week. There has been much talk about a ‘phase two’ with no clear results to show for it yet, and his first conference as leader is the ideal time to start. The Labour conference mapped out a path to winning the next election — yet the party evidently feels predestined or morally obliged, or both, to follow a quite different road under a different leader. For Conservatives, the prospects have seldom looked better.