The Tory faithful meet in Birmingham firmly in the midst of midterm blues. For many a Labour activist, the disconsolate feeling that now envelops the Conservative ranks will be all too familiar from the sorry end to our time in government. A discredited prime minister, dire polls, a resurgent opposition and revolting backbenches – some things never change in politics. Six months after the worst-received budget in a generation, a budget that proved the pivot point in the government’s fortunes, the prime minister will be desperate to show that he is still the man to lead the Conservatives to 2015 and beyond, and remain prime minister at that.
His effortlessly assured first few steps as Conservative party leader, where he mocked Blair as ‘the future once’ and dragged a Byzantine party kicking and screaming into the 21st century, the formation and management of the coalition, and the smoothness of his first months in office, convinced many that his failure to win the general election outright had been a mere aberration in an otherwise formidable political ascent. How misplaced much of this confidence and praise now seems. Buffeted by events, criticised by his own and with a rampant rival deliberately stirring discontent, this is Cameron’s most important conference since 2007 when he saw off Gordon Brown’s contortions over an early general election.
The Tory leader will have to conjure formidable political oratory when he strides across the platform on Wednesday to address a party in a foul mood. He faces a choice. To pander to his reactionary right, those who will never smile unless a Conservative leader is speaking in bloodcurdling tones about Europe, immigration and the welfare state. Or he can continue the mission he set out upon with his ‘no notes’ speech in Blackpool in 2005; a speech that won him the leadership of the Conservative party, and ultimately the highest office in the land.
It would be easier for Cameron to turn ever rightwards, to pick up the dog-whistle Michael Howard blew in the 2005 election and leave the podium with elastic applause ringing in his ears. The Conservative party will also have its fringe elements, much like the Labour party, who froth with fury and scream ‘betrayal!’ at every opportune moment. Cameron has proved in the past he is not afraid to take on his party’s reactionaries, and so his speech this year must prove once more.
Whatever Cameron says on Wednesday it will in the context of – and in tribute to – Ed Miliband’s successful speech in Manchester last week. The Labour leader laid down a gauntlet, audaciously making a landgrab for the traditionally conservative notion of One Nation. It has spooked the Conservative party who were, for so long, lulled into the false sense of security that Miliband just didn’t have it in him. Of course, a speech does not a leader make, but Cameron will have to prove he has the resolve to see off, as he joked at the weekend, ‘his fourth Labour leader’.
Party conferences now focus almost exclusively on the leader’s speech, hence the focus in this musing. Cameron has had two career-defining party conferences already. In 2012, he needs the hat-trick. The test for Cameron will be whether he takes the easy plaudits and throws red meat to the Tory right, or if he remembers why he was elected leader in 2005 and reaffirms his modernisation zeal – and in doing so reaffirms his connection with the electorate.
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