This is especially true of George Osborne, who is thinking harder than anyone else about how the party wins the 2020 election, and who used his speech to tell Tories they must try harder to win over “working people” who “didn’t quite feel able to put their trust in us” in 2015.
1) Senior Tories strongly believe that they have an opportunity to capture a large swath of new voters from Labour.
(Although, David Cameron’s speech also represented a major tank-parking exercise.) This marks a striking contrast with Labour’s conference, where there was almost no discussion at all about how to appeal to people who voted Tory. And Osborne’s point was not simply a rhetorical gimmick because ...
2) The Conservatives have no shame about pinching Labour policies.
Following the summer budget sortie into Labour territory, represented by the “national living wage”, the Tories have followed that up this week with the national infrastructure commission – a flagship Labour manifesto proposal that will even be run by a Labour peer, Lord Adonis – as well as proposals for business rates decentralisation and extending parental leave to working grandparents, which are largely Labour-inspired. Perhaps TS Eliot’s adage “good writers borrow, great writers steal” has been an inspiration.
3) The Conservatives want to colonise the “common ground” – but that does not mean the party is moving left.
Ministers have been told to talk about representing the common ground, not the centre ground (prompting renewed interest in Margaret Thatcher’s Keith Joseph lecture, which explained the difference) and, for all the Labourish initiatives, the Tories are very hardline in other respects. Cameron’s speech was strong on progressive rhetoric, but light on progressive policy. As for whether the Tories are moving left or right, a better description would be to say that they are “manspreading” – doing their best to take up as much space as possible.
4) It’s too soon to write off Boris Johnson’s leadership chances.
Johnson’s prospects have been on the slide ever since Cameron won a majority, but he has staged something of a comeback this week, with a remarkably well received speech. Osborne remains the current favourite to replace Cameron but Johnson has seen the biggest lift in his share price. Cameron has been making a particular effort to talk up Johnson (to bind him in?).
5) But real leadership campaigning hasn’t started.
There has been a lot of media talk about leadership this week and some candidates are engaged in long-term positioning, but it is very much at the “phoney war” stage. A real leadership battle is destabilising, personal and vindictive. This week’s manoeuvrings haven’t been like that, and it’s all too early anyway. Osborne may be “ahead”, but that’s like trying to guess the winner of the 5,000 metres by who’s in front after the second lap.
6) Ukip is no longer seen as a threat to the Tories.
At last year’s conference, the party was reeling from the defections of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, and there were fears more Tory MPs could follow them. But the fact Reckless lost his seat at the election has killed the prospect of further MPs joining Nigel Farage. Even those MPs determined to vote to leave the EU don’t want to embrace Ukip, and the only Ukip reference in Cameron’s speech was a joke about Farage’s resignation.
7) The looming EU split has been postponed.
There was much talk about the EU referendum, especially on the fringe, but it never descended into open warfare. However, with figures such as Theresa May and Johnson demanding restrictions on EU migration, which Cameron has almost no chance of achieving, a damaging clash at the very top of the party at some point seems inevitable.
8) The Tories do not believe in Jeremy Corbyn’s “new politics”.
As a membership organisation, the party remains moribund and a review of how it operates is underway. But, given that the party won the election without a Corbyn-style influx of new members, there seems to be little interest in achieving a genuine grassroots revival. And there is certainly no support for setting up a registered supporters scheme.
9) We’re going to hear more than usual about defence and national security over the coming months because the Tories believe this is their best way of attacking Corbyn.
Corbyn’s economic policies have also come under fire at the conference, but there seems to be some nervousness about engaging with his anti-austerity agenda. Instead, Cameron and others are gleefully attacking him on matters relating to patriotism, terrorism and defence.
10) Ed Balls may have lost his seat, but his influence – on both parties – endures.
If the national infrastructure commission succeeds, the former shadow chancellor may not get the credit but he will be entitled to claim it as part of his legacy because it was so clearly his idea. Interestingly, at the Labour conference there was also a lot of Balls’s thinking in the speech from John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor (eg signing up half-heartedly to the Tories’ fiscal charter; wanting to balance the budget while borrowing to invest; focusing on growth as a deficit reduction mechanism; getting the Office for Budget Responsibility to audit Labour’s plan). But don’t expect Osborne, or McDonnell, to acknowledge their debt to someone now out of favour with both party leaderships.
This article was written by Andrew Sparrow, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 7th October 2015 15.26 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010