For a party still facing defeat at the next general election, the Conservatives left Blackpool feeling remarkably upbeat. ‘It’s the spirit of Gallipoli,’ said a veteran of William Hague’s election campaign. ‘They’re united against Brown,’ mused one shadow Cabinet member. Neither image is quite right. This was no deluded optimism, no awestruck reaction to David Cameron’s speech. The mood at the conference had changed long before he stood up on Wednesday. Something had gone badly right.
The week started with the party in a murderous mood, with talk at the candidates’ party centring on who would replace the evidently doomed Mr Cameron. He had focused too much on image, ran the draft postmortems, without explaining what a Conservative government would do. Parliamentary candidates complained they had no ammunition when they went on the doorsteps, that they would struggle to give a reason for people to vote Tory.
By Monday, it was clear that all this was to change. The same candidates can now say — for instance — that a vote for the Tories is a vote to raise the inheritance tax threshold from £300,000 to £1 million. This is a political masterstroke, addressing the heartfelt concerns of millions who spend much time thinking of ways to cut the taxman out of their will. The abolition of stamp duty under £250,000 is a gesture, but a welcome gesture nonetheless, aligning the party with the spirit of aspiration. And few will shed a tear for the 117,000 foreign workers with non-domicile status from whom the party is (rather optimistically) looking for the cash to balance the books.
Many of the policies which came out of this conference have yet to be picked up properly by the media. Take, for example, the welfare reform which Mr Cameron almost casually announced. A few months ago, he privately ruled out campaigning on this very area of policy in case he was accused of being heartless. Now, he explicitly presents as his model the robust welfare reform pioneered in Wisconsin. Those on incapacity benefits who refuse a proffered job will disqualify for benefits, he says. Tough love, indeed.
Mr Cameron believes that this agenda has tremendous potential: once, he might have been accused of targeting the most vulnerable, but now the public increasingly regards welfare dependency as a scourge that needs to be tackled. In ten years of economic growth, the number on out-of-work benefits has fallen from 5.7 million to 5.4 million — an appallingly insignificant change. This is Mr Cameron’s way into the immigration debate: explaining how the unprecedented influx of newcomers to our shores is a direct result of paying so many people to do nothing.
But perhaps the most radical policy is on education. Without undue fanfare Michael Gove, the schools spokesman, has pledged to bring to Britain the policy which revolutionised education in Sweden. Any group of teachers would now be able to set up a school, so long as it met certain minimum standards. Such schools would be genuinely independently run. These simple rules offer the prospect of nothing less than a supply side revolution in education. In his own speech, Mr Cameron placed this policy at the heart of his party’s education programme.
His task now that the conference has dispersed will be to get across just how radical these policies are. Just as it was hard for Soviet-era Muscovites to imagine bulging supermarkets, so will the British electorate struggle to imagine a world in which pupils and their parents choose schools and not vice versa. Villages, churches or Montessori groups will be able to open and run state schools. The poorest children will be worth most to teach. So Mr Cameron can fight the next election pledging that only the Tories can eradicate sink schools.
The ink is barely dry on these proposals. Even on the eve of Mr Cameron’s speech, there were flashes of tension among shadow Cabinet members about the precise scope or true significance of these policies. But behind all this lies a collective recognition that Mr Cameron’s initial strategy — conveyed in messages like ‘social responsibility’ and ‘general well being’ — was too fuzzy and limited in its appeal. It could not contain, and seemed to exclude, fundamental aspects of Conservatism.
In the soul-searching which followed the Brown bounce, the Cameron high command concluded that the approach which won him the leadership election in 2005 had exhausted itself. There needed to be a change — and this is it. The party recognised a new face this week, and cheered up immensely. It senses the demise of the species identified by Mr Osborne in his interview with me last week as the ‘über modernisers’. The hoodie-hugging, Polly-praising, huskie-drawn days are over. Their wake was held this week at Blackpool.
If the Prime Minister was hoping for the Tories to implode, he must now be sorely disappointed. His aides are talking ever more openly about an election next month. Mr Brown is currently digesting reams of polling data from marginal seats, they say, and if the figures are good enough then he will go to the country. Next Tuesday is being earmarked as a possible day for an announcement. It is becoming increasingly hard to imagine Mr Brown marching us all down to the bottom of the hill.
Ironically, Mr Cameron’s strong performance this week is unlikely to deter the PM from an early election. It is now clear that the Tories have rediscovered their sense of direction and purpose. The risk, of course, is that Mr Brown now copies the proposals unveiled this week: he is a practised jackdaw. He could levy his own tax on non-domiciled workers — and promise to spend the proceeds on health or education. Perhaps this was, all along, a cunning plan to flush the Tories out.
But Mr Brown did not look relaxed, or cunning, as he released his Iraq withdrawal plans ahead of schedule — and assembled a frenetic programme of parliamentary activity when the Commons returns next week. He looks like a rattled Prime Minister who has seen his enemy strengthen, rather than crumble, on the eve of battle. The odds facing the Tories are still daunting — they need to translate today’s 11-point Labour lead into an eight-point Tory lead to have a simple majority. I met no sensible Tory in Blackpool who claimed such odds were surmountable.
But spirits are high, nonetheless. There was a palpable ideological fusion this week, a reconciliation between party and leadership and a coded mea culpa from the Cameroons who now appreciate that they could have done much of this earlier. Their apology has been accepted, and the distinctive sound of Tory reconciliation could be heard in Mr Cameron’s ovation. The Conservatives may still lose the next election, but at least they have found an agenda. And for many in Blackpool, this was the greater accomplishment.