Manchester 2011: What the Conservatives are thinking
The natural party of government appears to have its swagger back.
By Alex Stevenson in Manchester Follow @alex__stevenson
You might expect, in a conference as spectacularly stage-managed as the Conservatives' annual gathering, that the leader's speech would directly reflect the themes emerging from the week. That was definitely the case this year in Manchester. But the overall impression would not have been the one originally intended.
The key to this gathering came at the end of a section in David Cameron's closing speech about education. The prime minister was delighted that discipline was being imposed in classrooms once again. A half-smile slowly spread across his face as he said, as self-satisfied as he was relieved: "The Conservatives are back in government."
That's been the spirit of Manchester '11. The natural party of government is beginning to feel like it's back where it belongs.
"The party's fairly upbeat," says Chris from London. It got a "very good result" in May's local elections, especially for a governing party. And the AV referendum wasn't bad, either. "We're naturally concerned about the economy," Chris acknowledges, for the Tories aren't completely inward-looking. "It's going to take longer than previously thought."
This is a political movement which has got its swagger back. Wandering around the conference centre in Manchester, there's barely a mention of the coalition. The Tories are pretending they won the outright majority they fully expected when they last gathered in this city. If they have any gut response to being in coalition, it's a feeling of pity at the plight of their junior partners. "They got a real kick in the teeth," Bob Moodie from Wythenshawe and Sale East says, recalling the AV referendum defeat. I sense a kind of suppressed glee.
Graham Clack, from Sevenoaks, sees some of the downsides. "Obviously I'm upset by some of the things we can't do," he says. Europe, immigration, crime and disorder: the right of the party, which Graham says he's sympathetic with, has found much of its agenda blunted by the liberals. But he's also frustrated with the lack of progress on the Human Rights Act. "The moderate mainstream," he continues, "don't have the views of people I know." There are other gripes, too. Mollie Dixon from Lincoln is "a bit frustrated" about the ongoing presence of the criminal records bureau. Bob Moodie doesn't think there's been enough progress in cutting red tape for local government. "They made a big deal of that, but it just hasn't happened yet."
Steven Bainbridge from Bishop Auckland has a different view. He doesn't think many of these difficulties have anything to do with the Lib Dems – especially on Europe. "We'd have had these arguments in a Tory government," he claims. Stephen would like to see the message change, too. "We're very negative when it comes to what we have to say about the economy. I sometimes think a more positive message could be made. Thatcher used to talk about rolling back the state." There's a reason why this isn't the case, of course. It simply opens the way for opposition politicians to claim the cuts are ideologically motivated. But Stephen would expect to win the argument that "we should get the state out of people's lives a bit more".
One of the subplots at this year's conference has been the ongoing crisis of the Scottish Conservatives, whose leadership election is dominated by the call of Murdo Fraser to change their name. Ruth Mackenzie, from Edinburgh West, doesn't think this is the way forward. But she accepts there are real difficulties north of the border for the Tories. She's been a councillor for over 12 years, but is giving up next year. "Over these years, we've been getting nowhere as councillors," she says. "Once we're in there they love us, but it doesn't transfer up. That's why we need this slight break." All she really wants is a solution which allows critics to "stop talking about Thatcher".
A rather young delegate, who might have fitted in better at an X Factor audition than the Conservative party conference, moaned during the queue for Cameron's final speech that he was "bored" by this year's conference. It was the third one he'd been to, he said. In 2009 the party was gearing up for a general election. In 2010 it was in a flap over the coalition's prospects. In 2011, the situation has stabilised. It's subdued. And there haven't even been any major policy announcements.
"Some people are disappointed by that," Graham adds. "But that's not what the conference is for." He says sticking to the course is always going to be a bit tedious. The problem of the deficit is the same "this week, this month, this year". He adds: "I've been reassured."
As the Conservative party's collective suitcase trundles out of the doors of the Midland hotel, as the delegates make their way back to the leafy shires, they return from the confines of the secure zone to a Britain threatened by global economic ructions. These threats will affect the country, but there's not a sense it will affect them directly. Come what may, they are back in power. And despite everything else, that is what matters to them most.