The champagne ban was non-negotiable: David Cameron did not want any of his aides drinking bubbly at the Conservative party conference. Not that they needed much telling. The mood was already so sombre that some Tory staffers were decanting cans of beer under the tables of the Hyatt Hotel in Birmingham to avoid bar prices; they were later caught by the manager. What was first intended as a celebration had become a wake, mourning the prosper-ity era which the Conservatives had originally planned for. They must now prepare for an economic war.
The Pol Roger was flowing defiantly at The Spectator’s reception on Monday night, but was used mainly to treat shock. The Dow Jones Industrial Average had just suffered the sharpest fall in its history, and it became grimly apparent that nothing the Tories said really mattered any more. George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, had just seen his plan to freeze council tax for two years relegated to the inside pages.
Mr Cameron and his aides spent Monday night adjusting the tone of the conference. Rather than fire any more new policies into the same black hole that had swallowed Mr Osborne’s initiative, the conference would instead be about showing judgment and adaptability. Mr Cameron would fight Mr Brown not by denouncing him, but by giving the public a superior analysis of the economic meltdown. He would respond to Mr Brown’s factional attacks by offering bipartisan support. He would answer the ‘no time for a novice’ charge by saying that character trumps experience.
Mr Cameron had tempted fate by writing three quarters of his speech before conference started. When he arrived, he joked to his aides that Blackpool was his ‘lucky’ conference venue and that moving to Birmingham was asking for trouble. As each day passed, more trouble duly came. It became clear that any substantial announcement would be lost, and events could have rendered the Tory conference an irrelevance. Yet Mr Cameron used the adversity to emerge looking stronger, more mature and readier for office than ever before.
His success lay in far more than simply judging the tone of his speech perfectly. It was built on restraint. The easiest path for him would have been to lambast Mr Brown for a decade of light-touch regulation and seek popularity by promising vengeance on bankers as John McCain is doing in America. Instead, Mr Cameron defended capitalism, or the ‘free enterprise system’ as he called it. Stamped throughout the conference was the realisation that, as Boris Johnson put it, much as one may loathe the masters of the universe, they are free to relocate anywhere else in the world.
Next Cameron offered a clear critique of what he called the ‘decade of debt’ at a time when Mr Brown was literally denying there had been any subprime lending in Britain. (This magazine disclosed in April that a fifth of all mortgages are categorised as subprime by credit rating agencies.) As the Prime Minister fixed more blame on America and spoke of the credit crunch as if it were the Sars virus, he looked unable to comprehend the scale or nature of the situation.
Finally there is the shift in Tory policy. The ‘sharing the proceeds of growth’ mantra has been cast into an unmarked grave and a new policy — ‘share the pain’ — has taken its place. The phrase is not one Mr Osborne would use on stage, but this is precisely what is exemplified by his plan to offer money to councils that cut their budgets in a way he intends to do by reducing consultants and advertising spending in Whitehall. This draws a new battle line. While Mr Brown promises to keep up state spending, as if this were a good in itself, the Tories will continuously identify waste.
All this rendered the Birmingham conference one of the strangest in Tory history, if by no means the highest profile. The average age seemed to drop by two decades, partly due to the presence of those fighting the 125 seats expected to turn blue at the next election. They had come to make contacts, knowing that the next time they meet it may well be as MPs in parliament. The gender mix was the richest anyone can remember. The whole conference seemed packed with those priceless political assets: young Tories who appear to be on the same wavelength as the rest of their generation.
Just a few years ago, tumbleweed could have blown through some of the more worthy Tory fringe meetings. This year it was standing room only. Two fringe groups on ‘fixing the broken society’ were scheduled at the same time. Both were packed. Lobbyists who were noticeably absent from Labour’s conference in Manchester thronged the conference halls, quietly buying drinks (still wine only) and dinner. I counted at least six former Labour staffers, some of the brighter ones, now reincarnated as lobbyists (‘We just couldn’t stomach Brown,’ one told me). Charities had come to influence the Tories, knowing they would have wasted their time with Labour in Manchester.
All this was what made it such a surreal conference. The expectation of power was palpable, yet there was little excitement. The Tories had gathered not as the future kings, but a team of insolvency experts about to be called in to deal with the collapse of UK plc. There is a list of unanswered questions: how much more to borrow, how to kickstart a moribund economy. But Mr Cameron will answer them another day. His strategy for now is to use an old Tory trick: level with the public, offer blood, toil, tears and sweat and hope the electorate will find his proposition the more plausible.