Conference Diary – Reflections on the PM’s speech and the general impressions of the 2011 Conservative Party Conference.
The conference season was brought to a close by the David Cameron’s speech, his second as Prime Minister. It was marked by two extraordinary themes, neither of which you will probably read in the newspapers. Firstly the conference hall was barely half full. This is surely the first time that either main political party has had trouble getting activists bums on seats for the centrepiece of the conference. Secondly, the speech made virtually no reference at all to the Liberal Democrats and absolutely none whatsoever of Ed Miliband. Surely this is another first for a Conservative Party conference; a Tory leader not savaging his Labour counterpart.
The content of David Cameron’s speech will probably not last the week. There was no ‘You turn if you want to… the lady’s not for turning’, or ‘go back to your constituencies and prepare for government’ moment. Nothing will make pundits or activists look back on the speech in years to come with a great deal of zeal. But yet there was a huge amount of conviction about the direction of travel the government will lead in the coming months.
The PM mentioned, for example, that he is in favour of gay marriage, something a Tory prime minister would surely not have thought of saying 20 years ago. By this measure he is clearly reaching out beyond the traditional comfort zone of a Conservative voter base. He was similarly resolute about the determination to get the construction industry moving, and with good reason. Britain’s growth in the last quarter was lowered from an estimated 0.2% to just 0.1% the day after Cameron’s speech. The PM was very firm with those who would seek to say no to new development just because they had a window view to protect. He implored these people to “take your argument down to the job centre”, a clear reference to the dividing line being drawn between a pro-growth and pro-development government and those who would serve their own narrow self-interest.
Cameron made several other popular announcements about keeping to a deficit reduction strategy and sweeping away health and safety laws (his gag about Britannia not ruling the waves with a pair of armbands was good) which also registered with commentators and delegates alike.
But the one thing that has pretty much summed up the Conservatives in Manchester this year is quite how few of them there were. Of the 14,000 or so attendees only around 4,000 were party delegates, the rest were journalists, exhibitors and lobbyists. Perhaps this is the price of being in power, but the hundreds of empty seats in the auditorium gave the impression the party was disinterested in what the PM had to say. By that measure he was certainly talking to a wider audience in the country.
The big question is, will they listen?