Strange times – and some strange sights – in Birmingham at Conservative Party Conference this week. Boris Johnson’s double act with a brick. The Prime Minister’s impression of William Hague. A Tory standing ovation for the NHS. Everyone, it seems, had been drinking the Kool-Aid.
There was every reason to expect that Conservative Party Conference 2014 would be a downbeat affair in the wake of defections, a sex scandal, a near-death experience for the Union, and a steady flow of polls predicting a Labour election victory. Yet there was a spring in the step of Conservative delegates who gathered in large numbers in Birmingham.
Everyone I spoke to who had been in Manchester the previous week spoke of the stark contrast in energy and expectation between the two conferences. If political parties’ electoral prospects could be measured in terms of the number of delegates drinking in the main conference bar until the small hours then the Conservatives are on course for a triumphal 1979-style landslide win. However, the challenge for party strategists is to convert the enthusiasm present in the Hyatt Regency lounge into boots on the ground in marginal seats – and to persuade the electorate to share in the party’s mood of optimism.
Even the UKIP threat – which most analysts expect will cost the Conservative Party power next year – did not deflate delegates’ spirits. The palpable anger at Mark Reckless’ decision to defect was matched by confidence that his constituency of Rochester and Strood could be retained by the Conservatives in the coming by-election. By the end of conference, after the defection of a former London Assembly member and a donor, the chatter switched from ‘how dare they!’ to ‘who are they?’ (Well, they are “quitters, splitters and kippers” in the view of the Mayor of London).
The Leader’s Speech is the centre piece of any party conference and David Cameron certainly rose to the occasion. He delivered a speech that blended crowd-pleasing policy announcements on tax with his personal passion for the NHS – and he even remembered to talk about the deficit. The Prime Minister felt confident enough to talk about his privileged upbringing and private education to deliver a withering attack on Labour’s education policy and shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt.
On Sunday night the Prime Minister had told a reception that if the Conservatives couldn’t do a better job staging their party conference than Labour had managed the previous week then “[we] frankly don’t deserve to win”. If the 2014 Party Conference demonstrated anything it is that the Conservatives still fervently believe that they not only deserve to win in 2015 but that they will win – now they just have to convince everyone else to take a big sip of the Kool-Aid.
James Ford is a Senior Consultant at PLMR. He is a former aide to Mayor of London Boris Johnson, advising on transport, environment and digital policy between 2010 and 2012.