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7 October 2015

Conservative Conference 2015

Government Affairs

By Iain Dale, LBC radio presenter and MD, Biteback Publishing

The Conservative conference was never going to be exciting. Party strategists decided to make it as boring as possible. Yes, there would be the odd big policy announcement, but in general if the Tories could escape Manchester with no adverse headlines, it would be a job well done. Things, however, are never quite that simple.

Most of the media looked at this entire conference through the prism of who will succeed David Cameron when the time comes. It may be four years too early, but hey, it keeps us all in work.

At the end of the conference we know little more than we did at the start. We know George Osborne is taking on more and more domestic policy responsibilities and that he wants to position the Tories to eat into the working class Labour vote. He gave an accomplished performance on Monday and left no one in any doubt as to whether he sees himself as Cameron’s natural successor.

On Tuesday it was the turn of Boris Johnson and Theresa May to impress. Or not. Theresa May surprised us all by giving a very right wing speech entirely about immigration. Having warned the Tories at their 2002 conference they were in danger of being seen as the nasty party, thirteen years on she seemed determined to prove the truth of that remark. It may have gone down well with a certain group of Tory members, but the Westminster media hated it. She’s clearly calculated that neither Boris Johnson nor George Osborne will be the candidates of the right, so she might as well slip her kitten heels into that gap.

Boris Johnson gave the undoubted hit speech of the conference, and he needed to. His stock has fallen since his return to Parliament and in ConservativeHome polls he has dropped to third place in the leadership stakes. He seemed to have lost his MoJo (or possibly BoJo) and has done little to impress. Three or four years out from a leadership election, this is still important. If he is to make the final round, he needs to win the support of his fellow MPs and he knows he has a mountain to climb. The 2015 intake don’t know him and are slightly in awe of him. He’s failed to cultivate the 2010 intake, and those who served with him when he was last in parliament remember his shambolic performance on the front bench and his inability to be part of a team.

But it was David Cameron’s speech that most will remember from this conference. He showed them what they will be missing when he departs in a few years’ time. His articulation of the case for liberal social reform was quite something, especially the passage on equality being the key to opportunity. His forceful denunciation of ‘passive tolerance’ of extremism went down well in the hall, but many (even on the left) will have cheered him out in the country.

What those of us inside the Westminster bubble noticed, though, was the way Cameron bigged up Boris Johnson, George Osborne and Michael Gove. But for Theresa May there was nothing. And after her speech yesterday, it was more than she deserved.

Iain Dale is the drivetime presenter on LBC Radio and MD of Biteback Publishing.

Image: Manchester, City Hall

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