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by GK Strategy 10th December, 2013
2 min read

creativity in a crisis

Conservative Conference Round-up

Conservative Party conference, typically the last in the season, can inevitably suffer from a certain amount of fatigue from the media and the public – however, this was not felt in the conference hall where a mood of focused determination from party activists and MPs was palpable. Looking around the conference centre in Manchester it wasn’t hard to determine what the focus of the Conference was to be. “For Hardworking People” signs adorned nearly every board, accompanied by statements of Conservative achievements in Government to date, including: an income tax cut for 25 million people; the deficit cut by a third; 1.4 million more private sector jobs; benefits capped; crime down and immigration down.

The land of hope is Tory

In contrast to Ed Miliband’s headline-grabbing policy announcement of a freeze on energy prices, David Cameron’s Leader’s speech on the final day of the conference was comparatively low key. Rather than using it as an opportunity to announce new polices, he instead used it as a platform to set out his vision of what a future majority Conservative government-run Britain would look like. He vowed to get behind business and create a “land of opportunity for all”; setting out dividing lines with “the 1970s-style socialism” he said Labour now offered. Whilst eager to emphasise the danger of complacency, he said that the economy was “turning the corner” and demonstrated his point with a patriotic criticism of the Labour Party saying, the “land of hope is Tory”, while “the land of despair was Labour”.

Cameron also used his speech as an opportunity to hint that the party’s 2015 manifesto will include plans to ensure under-25s are ‘earning or working’, with sanctions including losing automatic entitlement to the dole and housing benefit if they refuse to take part in training. This complemented Chancellor George Osborne’s announcement earlier during the week that plans to make the long-term unemployed undertake work placements in order to continue receiving benefits and welfare and work reforms would continue to be a focus of party policy in the run up to the 2015 General Election. This policy is set to strike a chord with the party faithful, and “hardworking” families who are feeling the pinch, but critics will be sure to comment on the impact which these further austerity measures will have on an already stripped Department for Work and Pensions budget.

A notable omission from Cameron’s speech was any reply to Ed Miliband’s popular promise to freeze energy bills for the first 20 months of a Labour government. The party instead choose to criticise the policy as a gimmick which would only serve to add more to state borrowing and spending and risk putting the UK on the economic trajectory of Greece. This “quick fix” by “Red Ed” was cannon fodder for some in the media who have repeatedly challenged Miliband’s ‘left’ agenda and sought to remind the public of the party’s days in the wilderness. Cameron instead promised further tax cuts in an attempt to please the Tory faithful, and reiterated his commitment to big business, providing assurances that “profits, tax cuts and enterprise… are not dirty, elitist words”. The Chancellor George Osborne’s statement that he would like to freeze fuel duty for the rest of the parliament responded directly to Miliband’s continued attack about the cost of living, but there was a feeling that more will need to be done to ensure that the public feels personal budget pressures are being addressed.

Removing the Liberal Democrat albatross

David Cameron was met with cheers during his speech when he attacked his Lib Dem Coalition partners for “trying to take all the credit” for lowering the minimum earnings threshold at which people start paying income tax. This feeling was echoed throughout various party member events, with multiple MPs recognising the need for the Conservative Party to better communicate their achievements in government to the general public, particularly to ensure the public see the “softer side” of the Tory Party. There was a tangible mood throughout the conference of a desire to “cut that yellow Liberal Democrat albatross from around our necks and let it plop into the sea”, as the Mayor of London put it in his speech, something which the Party will seek to do as they work flat-out for an outright Conservative majority in 2015. Critically the party needs to ensure its former reputation as the “nasty party” is not on voters’ minds again, by cushioning tougher measures with softer policy successes.

Surprise packages at conference

Contrary to prior speculation, there were no real moments of drama or surprise during the conference. UKIP’s Nigel Farage made a relatively uneventful appearance at a number of fringe events and, having in the past been accused of stealing the limelight from the Prime Minister, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, maintained a low profile throughout. In spite of recent intense media speculation of a possible return to Parliament, Boris’s conference speech made no direct reference to his future – although he couldn’t resist remarking that French politician Alain Juppe had been Mayor of Bordeaux while he was French prime minister, joking that this was a “good idea”.

It was therefore left to Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond to attract the most unfortunate media attention when he was heckled during his speech by retired soldiers taking umbrage with plans to cut the budget of their old regiment. Another memorable moment was the speech from Jo Morley, from Bedford, who broke down in tears as she told of the impact the free schools initiative had had on her 14-year-old son’s education.

Political pundits also found a surprise package in the form of the Chancellor George Osborne whose speech outlined his vision for another six years of austerity with the aim for Britain to run a budget surplus by 2020, and which was delivered well enough to revive speculation about his chances as a potential Conservative leader.

Drawing the dividing lines

Although this conference certainly won’t go down in history as the most exciting, party activists will have been cheered by the sharpening of political dividing lines and a clear stance that a Conservative Majority government is the goal for 2015.

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