THIS shouldn’t be an annus horribilis for the Tories. For the first time in 13 years, their leader will address the party conference as Prime Minister. The long slog of opposition is, at last, over. And yet things are not quite right.
Maybe the party should have gone to Brighton or Bournemouth this year – anywhere but Britain’s “second city”, Birmingham. The International Conference Centre is right next door to Birmingham Edgbaston, exactly the kind of seat the Tories needed to win to secure an outright majority in May. Their failure to win in this constituency – and scores of others like it – cost them the election. It serves as a painful reminder of the fact that the Conservatives failed to seal the deal with the electorate.
The mood in the conference halls reflects this. As one would expect for an era of austerity, excess has been banned. Deputy party chairman Michael Fallon has, for the second year in a row, outlawed champagne. Pensiveness, not celebration, is the watchword.
Many in the Conservative party think David Cameron is glad the election delivered a hung parliament, rather than outright Tory rule. The coalition has allowed him to drag the Tories to the centre while slaying the right-wing dragons that made the party so unelectable, or so his critics allege. This is only partly true. Even Cameron’s biggest critics accept that his best trait is adaptability. He might not have wanted to lead a coalition government but he recognises its advantages. Policies have to be agreed by both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, meaning they are examined more rigorously; by the time they are presented to the public, they should be watertight. Collective cabinet responsibility, rather than the autocratic decision making of the New Labour years, is back. Two parties, not one, will have to bear the brunt of public disquiet over the most ambitious fiscal tightening in Britain’s peacetime history.
Nor have the Lib Dems stopped the Tory party from implementing some of its more radical policy proposals. Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reform proposals, which will ensure that work is rewarded in the benefits system, have been rubber-stamped, or just about. Sadly, the Treasury has insisted the reforms are phased in over two parliaments – or ten years – meaning they are more likely to hit the brakes when a new welfare secretary or government takes the reins.
Similarly, Michael Gove’s plan to roll out academies and free schools has got the go-ahead, even if vested interests in local authorities are trying to stop the proposals in their tracks. As Cameron-friendly Tories constantly point out with glee, their programme for government has emerged from the coalition negotiations relatively unscathed.
There are, of course, major sources of anxiety. On defence spending, the Conservatives are beginning to think the unthinkable, much to the chagrin of rank-and-file supporters. Increasingly, it looks as though just one new aircraft carrier will be built, meaning Britain will only be able to guard its own waters. In the words of the late poet Philip Larkin, that means places we “guarded or kept orderly, must guard themselves, or keep themselves orderly” because “we want the money for ourselves at home”.