The Ups and Downs of the Conservative Conference

Written by Sam Macrory on 1 October 2014 in Opinion
Conservative conference is over... but who has emerged from it with reputations enhanced or otherwise?

Does a conference speech really make much impact in the world beyond the auditorium? After all, William Hague repeatedly trounced Tony Blair at PMQs only to be rewarded with an electoral catastrophe. But given where this conference started, with a defection and a scandal, David Cameron must be delighted at the way it has ended: A conference speech which is being described all over the airwaves, and back in Birmingham, as the best of his career. Total Politics’ own Dan Hodges believes Cameron’s words have finished off Ed Miliband for good. The polls will soon show if he’s right, but even if there’s no national bounce for his party Cameron has given his troops reason to believe.

Down: Ed Miliband

For the last three years Ed Miliband has won the battle of the conference speeches. Not this time. Ed’s rambling journey through the lives of Gareth, Colin et al looked unfocused and uninspiring when compared to David Cameron’s slick and stylish turn on the main stage. And where the prime minister’s autocue ensured he got across the messages he wanted to, Miliband’s memory-fail was made a mockery of time and again at this conference. Neither Labour or the Tories went into conference with much momentum, but where Miliband failed to give the Labour ranks anything in the way of bounce David Cameron has sent his party home in buoyant mood.

Up: Theresa May

May is an extremely popular figure in her party, an increasingly warmer character who takes time out to press the flesh. And she also delivered what was briefly the speech of the week. Liberal Democrats weren’t happy, liberally minded Tories were deeply uncomfortable too, but May wowed – and wooed – the conference hall with her promise to clamp down on extremism. Michael Gove, the Tory chief whip, was moved to describe her as the Iron Lady of the party – May has it in her to inherit another of Mrs Thatcher’s former titles too.

Down: Boris Johnson

Well, maybe not down. Plateauing is fairer. Boris still arrived to the predictably wild scenes of adulation, and served up two rounds of gag-laden tub-thumpery, but perhaps because he has declared his return to Parliament, or because of the looming approach of the general election, Borismania didn’t grip Birmingham as it has done in the past. Boris can do serious very well as his 2012 mayoral election proves, but it’s not quite the same as Boris unleashed. For now, however, he is a fully tethered to the party cause. He is, of course, an unbelievable electoral asset to the party, but for the next few months it is Brand Cameron rather than Brand Boris who will benefit the most.

Up: Jeremy Hunt

The health secretary is no great orator, and his conference speech passed with little fanfare. But Hunt is altogether a more impressive politician in smaller environments. I chaired an Age UK fringe event where the health secretary spoke, and the universal reaction from an audience made up of both delegates and health professionals was positive. Hunt, well briefed and prepared, knows his stuff. The NHS is going to be a major battleground at the 2015 election, and after today’s speech the prime minister has made it clear that he intends to cede no ground to Labour. It’s a big challenge for his health secretary: Pull this one off, and his rehabilitation, after the awkward ending of his time at the DCMS, will be complete.

Down: Mark Reckless

Talk to Tory spinners and MPs and it’s obvious that the Rochester by-election triggered by Mark Reckless is going to be a ferocious affair. One usually polite MP let out a stream of x-rated language when I asked him his thoughts on Reckless, while the PM’s own ‘fat-arse’ description was hardly prime ministerial. The Tories want to make an example of Reckless. And they want to hold on to Rochester at all costs. Douglas Carswell caused sadness and confusion when he quit the Tories. Reckless has inspired anger and gritted determination. Those of a faint disposition should look away now.

Up: Ruth Davidson

The Tories’ Scottish leader is going places. Picked out for praise in the prime minister’s speech, Ruth Davidson arrived in Birmingham as the Tory saviour of the union, a Scottish Conservative voice with the rare ability of connecting with the electorate north of the border. Could there really be a post-referendum Tory revival in Scotland? If there is, then Davidson seems well placed to lead it. The problem is, of course, is that David Cameron will be keen to bring her to Westminster at the earliest opportunity.

Down: The moderates

You could spot them wandering around the conference centre. Occasionally they popped up on the radio. Sometimes they spoke at fringes. But there is no getting away from the fact that a particular type of Tory MP - pro-EU, centre-left, on the wetter end of the economic scale - has been marginalised. And when David Cameron made his pledge to rip up the Human Rights Act, it’s obvious that this party would struggle to accommodate any of Damian Green, Ken Clarke or Dominic Grieve around the top table. Credit to all of them for continuing to make their views heard, but the main stage was quite definitely taken away.

Up: White Dee

The star of Channel 4’s Benefits Street was also a star of the fringe circuit, effortlessly transferring her plain-speaking manner to the ICC. She gave her blessing to the idea of a pre-paid benefits card, but not to the party hosting her – Dee, or Deidre Kelly, to give her her real name, admits she may vote UKIP in 2015. But she has also refused to rule out standing for Parliament as an independent candidate. “Obviously I wouldn't object to starting at the bottom - I wouldn't want to go straight in and have David Cameron's job.” Whatever happens next, she’s going places.

Down: Brookes Newmark

A bit obvious this. So there’s not much point dwelling on it. An undistinguished turn as charities minister came to a spectacular end for Mr Newmark with a good, old-fashioned Tory sleaze scandal. An embarrassing way to go, and an episode that will haunt Newmak forever. Boris Johnson suggested he deserved a second shot at ministerial office. Don’t bet on it.

Tags: CPC14

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