It is the best of times, it is the worst of times as the Conservatives gather in Birmingham for their party conference. 2012 has been a year of contrasts for the Government. On the one hand, the so-called ’Omnishambles’ that was this year’s budget has epitomised mid-term blues for the Coalition, the economy continues to flatline, and the Opposition’s poll lead has widened to double digits. On the other, the party triumphed in the London Mayoral election (which conveniently masked the drubbing the party took in the Assembly elections the same day), has ‘appropriated’ some of the credit for a successful Olympics, and retains commanding poll leads on the specific issues of economic competence and credible party leadership.
The problem for David Cameron is that he is credited with much of the bad news and very little of the good news for the party. Worse still, his premiership is increasingly being compared to that of Ted Heath in party circles (which is as scathing as insults get for Conservatives – no leader in the party’s history has ever lost as many elections). The key challenge of the week for him and the party is to try and regain the political initiative and force Labour onto the defensive over spending and the deficit. (Ed Balls’ controversial announcement this week that Labour may have to adopt the Coalition’s spending plans for their first few years in power should be interpreted as an attempt to spike the Conservative’s guns on this issue). Cameron will also want to convince his party that he, and he alone, can deliver victory in 2015.
Unfortunately, however much the Prime Minister wants to use conference to restore momentum for the Government he is instead likely to be overshadowed and upstaged by the man rapidly emerging as the most likely next leader, Boris Johnson.
Boris comes to Birmingham fresh from his victory in May, still basking in the golden glow of London’s successful Olympics and carried aloft on a wave of leadership speculation. In the last few years he has successful transitioned from the Court Jester of Conservative politics to Heir Apparent. Whilst talk of a leadership bid is premature and much of the support for him is ephemeral, there is no doubt that the Mayor has had a very good summer.
In past years, the Mayor has been content to come to conference and make mischief, lobbing political hand grenades at the Prime Minister and Chancellor before scurrying back to his day job in London. This year he will no doubt seek to appear a little more sensible and statesmanlike. Sure, there will still be a few hand grenades (expect him to reference the party’s divisions over airport capacity) and the usual witty one-liners but he will also seek to emphasise his loyalty to London and the current party leadership. Key indicators of his long term intent will be any dilution of the emphatic commitment he gave during May’s election to serve a full term as Mayor (his best chance at the leadership would come if he re-entered Parliament in 2015, a full year before his term is up) and what references he makes to the Liberal Democrats (usually a safe bet for a cheap punchline at Tory Conference, the next party leader may well need to negotiate with the Lib Dems about renewing the Coalition agreement after the next election).
Expect… the press to continue to stir up tensions between the Cameron and Johnson camps by comparing the size of audience, volume of cheering and length of standing ovations for each speech.
Don’t expect…the mayor to enter the conference hall on a zipline. Once bitten etc….