Conservatives in Birmingham, 2014
CPC14, as it became known through the daily texts from the Party Chairmen, started on an all-time-low, and finished on a considerable high. Lynton Crosby can take a lot of credit for the turnaround.
Sunday was dominated by talk of the defection, and of the resignation. Both were understandably irritating to delegates who had their attention focussed on hearing messages for the General Election. Reckless was perceived as a traitor, while Newmark was perceived as an idiot. The latter description was only diminished when Mark Pritchard MP vowed to sue the Sunday Mirror for entrapment, as it emerged that many other MPs had been approached, but only Newmark had been caught. The Councillors’ Reception that night was a sell-out with both Party Chairmen there to rally the troops and lift the spirits as the serious business of Monday approached.
The mood turned to positive as George Osborne’s Monday speech was well received, and the buzz that lunchtime was clear. The economic confidence battle between Balls in Manchester and Osborne in Birmingham revealed clear blue water, and the anxieties of the day before simply disappeared.
Unlike Manchester, where the exhibition stands of the trades unions were bigger and bolder than any of the others, the exhibitions stands in Birmingham were largely corporates and charities. The Conference fringe was lively, and the events were well attended in the marquees and in the hotels.
Tuesday brought three big speeches, when the Hall was full and the expectation was high. First Chris Grayling, then Theresa May, played to the right with their plans to beef up prison regimes, attack the European Court of Human Rights and focus our attention on the threat posed by terrorism. Then came some light relief from the jokemaster supreme, as Boris has now taken over the old Michael Heseltine slot, blending laughter and passion to get the delegates on their feet.
A lot of volunteers felt that Theresa May had improved her chances of the Leadership with her serious and impassioned focus on protecting British citizens. But the media scrum that followed Boris everywhere he went showed that he still has real celebrity, so any post-Cameron contest is still wide open, and will be a very different contest from the four way battle last time around.
On the last night of Conference, there are still memories of the Brighton bomb, and the Hyatt bar was heaving. It was also freshers’ week in Birmingham, so there were crowds everywhere long after midnight. The Police were well in evidence but the atmosphere was easy rather than ugly.
Unlike at Labour, where Miliband routinely speaks on the Tuesday afternoon, the Tories always finish with the Leader’s speech. This one from Cameron, who is not renowned as a great orator, had to be good, as it was the last before May 7th, and he needed to give the volunteers a taste of the manifesto to come. The speechwriters had wondered on Monday how they could escape the UKIP cloud which had hovered over the Conference all weekend, and give the delegates a good send-off.
The Party Chairman, Grant Shapps, came to the Treasurers’ Room just before the Leader’s speech to thank all the individuals who raise the election funds. One donor had quit to join UKIP that day. Shapps was at his best in calling for a big effort to beat Reckless in the Rochester by-election, and otherwise continued the upbeat messaging of all the Cabinet members during the week.
The big speech was, in the end, well-received, and showed Cameron could use a script and still reach out to the people. When talking about the NHS and praising the treatment of his late son, he was close to tears, and he swept the “barnacles off the boat” by sticking to the themes that people wanted to hear, such as the battle with ISIL, the abolition of the Human Rights Act and, most important of all, the economy, left out by Miliband the previous week. It dominated the headlines for the rest of the day, and set out his plan for the next five years.
In the end, Lynton Crosby’s script, George Osborne’s tax cuts and David Cameron’s unusually passionate delivery combined to end the week on a high. Yet again, Michael Gove was sent out to do all the spinning for the rest of the day. Although his successor Nicky Morgan took his usual Conference speaking slot, Gove showed that becoming Chief Whip has not reduced his impact, and we are bound to hear a lot from him in the months between now and the General Election.