The Tory party conference this year was a remarkable success, a festival of conservatism with an impressive array of radical ideas on display. But almost all of them could be found in fringe events, and pitifully few in the hall of the conference. Even Cabinet members complained that the main event lacked fizz. Discussion centred around various ideas being discussed by backbenchers, rather than -ministers. The intellectual leadership of the parliamentary party has passed to its lowest ranks.
David Cameron can take the credit for this shift. As opposition leader, he spent years working on policies to improve the calibre of parliamentary candidates, and has ended up with perhaps the most impressive cohort of young MPs delivered by any postwar election. The fringes were such an attraction because the Conservatives now have a striking number of MPs with passion, originality, fluency and independence of spirit. They seemed interested in what they can do in government, not in the mechanics of winning elections. And unlike the battle-weary MPs elected in the Labour years, they feel no need to apologise for their philosophy.
Liz Truss’s Free Enterprise Group of MPs, recently profiled by James Forsyth, could be guaranteed to fill any room they cared to speak in. The excitement that Boris Johnson caused when arriving in Birmingham New Street station was as nothing compared to the clamour to hear these MPs discuss the ideas in their book Britannia Unchained. (Ms Truss, alas, was fully chained: she is now a part of the government, and not at liberty to talk.) Lifting the burden on the low-paid and the next phase in welfare reform were topics that had hundreds trying to cram into budget hotels. So much was happening outside the party’s gated zone that many had turned up without a conference pass.
The Labour conference, by contrast, showed no signs of intellectual life. Its fringe meetings suggested that the party had suffered not only a defeat in 2010, but a lobotomy. There were hardly any speakers worth listening to, though you could find stalls offering massages and a tailor measuring for bespoke suits. Those who came shopping for ideas would have left empty-handed. Even the left-wing campaign groups at Tory conference seemed to find it more stimulating.
All told, things are looking good for the Tories in 2020. But this is a rather depressing prospect for those who want solutions sooner. We may be about to repeat the cycle of the 1970s: after a Tory government that tries reform but can’t implement it properly, Britain might endure a Callaghanesque five-year ordeal by an unprepared Labour party, before a reformed and radical Tory party finally gets it right. It would be better to skip this period and have a radical Tory party now. With almost three years until the next general election, there is still plenty of time.
The Prime Minister told the conference that deficit reduction was the ‘very foundation of our growth plan’ — and this is precisely what they are worried about. It is not enough. The debt is rising at a terrifying rate, and slowing that rise will not cause an economic recovery on its own. The fringes were full of better ideas for growth, mainly in the form of tax cuts funded by finding more savings in the still-gargantuan government budget. We are, as Cameron said, the most buccaneering and enterprising country on earth. We just need government to get out of the way, faster.
The Prime Minister is precisely right about the direction, but wrong about the speed. Even now, he is cutting less in four years than Dennis Healey did in one. He has won the argument over tough decisions, but his Chancellor is not making enough of them. Where the government has been radical — on schools and on welfare — it has been supported by the public and the party. Cameron could rightly claim that it is his Conservative party that is leading the fight against poverty in Britain today. Where they have dared, they have won. Where they have been fearful, they have struggled. This has been the lesson from two years of government.
It is odd that the conference should have an optimistic mood, given the absence of good news. But the spirit of Boris Johnson pervaded. Conservatism is, in essence, a vote of confidence in the courage and the character of the British public. It is a belief that the country is a fairer, stronger and more socially coherent place when government is small and the people are big. This is entirely in line with the priorities of what the newspapers refer to as the ‘Tory right’, and it was hard to discern any splits or mutiny at the conference. Activists simply want Cameron to do more of what he says.
There was almost no mention, anywhere at the Tory conference, of the next phase in the ‘modernisation’ project. That was a fair-weather agenda, its focus always on what to say, whereas the party now is more interested in what to do. David Cameron remains the most articulate advocate of the Conservative cause, one of the party’s strongest weapons. His conference speech raised the questions. The fringe meetings of his party held the answers. His task now is to put the two together.