For the first time in perhaps a decade, not a drop of blood has been shed on the floor of a Conservative party conference. What was for so many years a vicious gladiatorial arena this week turned into a serene botanical garden. According to precedent, this should have been the conference when David Cameron faced protest from a party which he has dragged through all manner of ideological contortions. But instead, he received the polite applause of an optimistic audience. It is not at all natural.
Nor was it particularly helpful. The script which Conservative managers had written for the week was one where Mr Cameron and his lieutenants would demonstrate his steely resolve by facing down the wicked ‘Tory Right’. The speeches of the shadow Cabinet were fortified with menacing sentences. There would be no bowing to pressure, and the Cameroon army was braced to withstand the charge of the refuseniks. But the enemy did not turn up — at least not in any numbers.
So instead we witnessed the bizarre spectacle of a political party seeking to manufacture a split which did not really happen. At 10 p.m. on Monday, for example, MPs were sent an electronic message that George Osborne was preparing to ‘answer all those who call for unfunded tax cuts’ in his speech. Yet not even Lord Tebbit was playing ball; he wanted tax cuts, but funded by a reduction in public spending growth. Strip away the hyperbole, and this is what is being proposed by Mr Cameron.
It is easy to be infuriated by the language adopted by the Cameron leadership over tax. Its ‘stability before tax cuts’ slogan is based on the nonsensical suggestion that the two are in direct conflict. The phrase ‘sharing the proceeds of economic growth between spending and tax cuts’ is infuriatingly vague — but it also means that no decisions on tax have to be taken yet. Mr Osborne gave the wink to the party that, while he cannot promise tax cuts now, he will enact them later.
Far from being the nemesis of the Conservative leadership, Lord Tebbit is proving useful. ‘It’s helpful when I attack you, isn’t it?’ he asked Mr Cameron when they had dinner recently. And it most certainly is. Mr Cameron needs Lord Tebbit like a pantomime director needs a villain. In order to say that the party has ‘changed’, the leadership need to show what it has changed from. Lord Tebbit stands proxy for the bad old Tory party which Labour so successfully taught Britain to hate.
This is what David Davis calls the ‘great calumny’ — Labour’s powerful portrayal of the Tories as a selfish party whose agenda is to cut taxes for the rich and slash services for the poor. For years the party fought against this propaganda but made little progress. What is different about the Cameron leadership is that it has decided to embrace the myth of the Evil Tory, and then join the attack. It is using the Labour caricature to define its own identity.
The main speeches last week confessed to sins the party has never committed. Mr Cameron declared that his predecessors had ‘obsessed about a handful more grammar schools’ rather than overall education improvement. At the last election the party apparently ‘put faith in opt-outs for a few’ and had no interest in better health for everyone. Mr Osborne declared the party could ‘no longer pretend complex problems have simple answers’, as if naivety had been a manifesto pledge.
Words from the Labour party attack manuals are now being used by Mr Cameron to describe the party he inherited. The audience in Bournemouth had every right to be outraged at this misrepresentation of what they have fought for over the last decade, yet they listened in good humour. It is clear that Mr Cameron is deploying a marketing trick, casting himself as the man who has vanquished the Evil Tories in the same way that Tony Blair vanquished Old Labour.
In the bars of the Highcliffe hotel — packed with aspirant party candidates hoping for a place on the A-List — some shadow Cabinet members were ready to believe the official version of events. ‘People were crying out for leadership and we gave it to them,’ said one. Others were less starry-eyed, more pragmatic: ‘We have been tilting at windmills. It’s fun, but there’s no real rebellion. We all agree on the need to reduce tax, and the debate beyond that can wait until later.’
The latter view was the consensus among the party members whom I spoke to: uniformly committed to lower tax but primarily committed to winning an election. They are prepared to indulge Mr Cameron when he says he agrees with them in spirit, but fear an explicit tax-cut promise now would expose the party to Labour attack. Thus the battle is not over substance, but presentation. Theresa Villiers, a Treasury spokesman, spoke for many when she declared the party so close to power ‘you can almost touch and feel it’.
Proximity to power has a strangely unifying effect. Much of the conference was listened to with neither enthusiasm nor revulsion but optimism and hopefulness. Even those deeply unsure about Mr Cameron’s priorities, who winced at his ‘hug a hoodie’ speech, are not mutinous. They are willing him on to find a better agenda, and to succeed. They will not have left Bournemouth disappointed.
His two speeches provided fresh evidence to support his claim that he is rejuvenating conservatism rather than burying it. He has understood the upbeat, empowering language of Conservatism which has won elections in America, Australia and even Sweden. His pledge to liberate, not regulate, is exactly the right pre-emptive attack on Gordon Brown. His unequivocal commitment to the family was bold, and overdue. The outlines for a radical Conservative agenda are slowly emerging.
So the party membership is prepared to sit quietly and give Mr Cameron time to develop his agenda, make his mistakes and find his ideological bearings. The importance of this feeling of loyalty is hard to exaggerate.
Labour’s victory came in 1997, but it was assured years earlier when the polarity of politics changed. After decades of civil war, Labour grasped the virtues of loyalty while the Tories were simultaneously infected with mutiny. It has taken some time, but the trend is palpable. These poles are reversing once again.