WHAT a difference a year makes. At the 2010 Tory conference, the party faithful were walking around in a blissful daze, barely able to contain their glee at being back in power after 13 years in the wilderness. The Office for Budget Responsibility, recently created by chancellor George Osborne, was forecasting economic growth of 2.6 per cent this year and 2.8 per cent next. Most MPs (including many in the Labour party) thought the coalition would close the deficit merely by trimming state spending a little, allowing them to deliver a pre-election tax cut that would guarantee the Tories a majority in 2015.
Times have changed. The IMF now predicts the British economy will grow by 1.1 per cent this year and 1.6 per cent next. Nor could the atmosphere at conference be more different. It isn’t so much the sound of anti-cuts protesters outside the convention centre that is worrying the Tory leadership, but rather the rumblings of discontent from the party’s own ranks.
The most damaging pre-conference intervention came at the weekend, when Andrew Tyrie, the Tory chairman of the Treasury select committee, said the government didn't have a “coherent” growth plan. His argument – that the Big Society, the green agenda and localism are either “irrelevant” or “contradictory” to the search for growth – will chime with most Conservatives. The leadership can’t dismiss Tyrie as one of the “usual suspects” (code for Eurosceptic right-wingers like John Redwood, who the modernisers have given up trying to convert); as the campaign manager for Ken Clarke’s 2001 leadership bid and the well-liked chairman of a bipartisan commons committee, Tyrie speaks for a much broader church.
So the Tories are at sea, bereft of ideas at the they need them most. No-one is expecting any earth-shattering announcements, such as a significant tax cut for businesses, while the measures that have been trailed so far – a “build now pay later” scheme for construction firms and a change in the law to make it easier to sack people – were actually announced several months ago. As one Tory MP, a member of the new intake, told me yesterday: “All we’re doing is reheating old announcements. When you keep on warming up old chicken, eventually someone will get sick.”
Amid all the gloom, the Tories can cling to a single bright spot: education. It stands alone as the area of policy that has emerged from the coalition negotiations unscathed. This is party because Michael Gove, the education secretary, started writing the legislation that underpins his reforms while still in opposition, allowing him to push it through the commons at break-neck speed. Since then, over a thousand schools have either become or are about to become academies, schools that are free from local authority control; by the end of the parliament, more than half of schools will have gained academy status. Then there are the 24 “free schools” – set up by parents, charities or other groups – that have opened since the legislation was passed in July.
It hasn’t been easy; Gove has had to fight on several fronts – teaching unions, local authorities, and even his own Whitehall department. Still, he has provided the Tory conference delegates with something to be cheerful about. Heaven knows they need it.