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Conservative Party Conference 2011: A Week in Manchester

Posted: 06/10/11 01:00

It was marred by protests, a victim of the standard ministerial gaffes and the final event of the annual season, but it was the way that the 2011 Conservative Party Conference clashed with the European economic crisis that made it so significant. We had been expecting the usual Tory PR slip-ups, and we definitely weren't left disappointed.

Year in, year out, the general aim of this party's conference stays the same; to ensure that members and policy setters are in touch with everyday people. More importantly, at a time when the party is still shaking off accusations of simply failing to understand the lives of average people during the eighties, the Tories have to look like they are in touch. Too many times has Cameron's premiership been compared to the dark days of Thatcher. This week, he knew he had to shake off that damaging perception of his cabinet at a time of austerity; a tough task.

Whilst over 25,000 union supporters marched through the city of Manchester and passed the Conference Centre on Sunday, Sayeeda Warsi was opening the week with a short key-note speech. She is unquestionably the most prominent non-elected member of the Conservative party, and as co-chairman of the party, it was no shock to see her at the top of the schedule.

Nevertheless, momentarily disregarding the content of her speech, I found its delivery somewhat unsettling. I respect enthusiastic displays by public speakers, but, as an audience member, there's a fine line between admiration of passion and fear of aggression. A simple "welcome to Manchester, the free coffee is served in..." would have sufficed. She went a little further than that, though, pretty much smoothing the ground for the later speeches of the week.

However, she lost me when she attempted to console the room by saying that, when grocery shopping, she has "also had to stop buying fresh and start buying frozen". It's a nice thought when I'm struggling to buy college books due to the lack of EMA that Baroness Warsi is heading into the colder aisles at the back of Waitrose to aid her emptier pockets.

Later that day, William Hague's speech to conference was a firm retaliation to Tory-bashing from Labour in Liverpool last week. He looked back at his time as Leader of the Opposition following the 1997 Tory election defeat and advised Labour to start acknowledging their major mistakes made during their thirteen years in power. As much as his comment later about the opposition being "welcome to destroy their own party" showed his statement about acknowledging mistakes wasn't designed to assist the Labour party, his accurate observations should be noted by Mr Miliband.

Labour cannot move on as a party without admitting their major errors in government. They are almost there, following apologies at their conference for reasonably significant errors during their time in government, but before they cross the finish line, it's an open goal for the Tories. However, Hague interestingly refrained from responding to any criticism made by the Liberal Democrats at the beginning of the season. He said Nick Clegg was "faced with a difficult but necessary decision over student fees" and spoke of his admiration for the Lib Dem leader when he "stuck with it". This was very much the approach taken throughout the following days; throw a few punches at the Labour Party, but let their coalition partners walk free. It's not a tactic that many were expecting, following the taunts the Conservatives received from prominent Liberals in Birmingham.

George Osborne had his work cut out on Monday, as he prepared to make his vital speech whilst economists were predicting the worst for the Euro. His critics should start recording their responses to his public appearances on tape and playing them back, because they are saying the same thing every time. The comments that followed his speech were identical to those that have followed every statement he has made in recent months; "it was alright, but it lacked the specific details of an economic plan"

I completely agree, but (although I may have been slightly won over following Osborne's successful attempt at guessing the going price for a pint of milk on Daybreak) I am impressed with the Chancellor's performance this week in Manchester. His presentation may have been somewhat theatrical in places, but the confident delivery he gave will have helped his image. I couldn't really care less about what the vast majority of the Cabinet are like personally, but I need to be able to place my trust in the Chancellor, especially when the economy is currently in such a fragile state.

On Wednesday afternoon as the Eurozone turmoil raged on, David Cameron had a platform from which he could speak to comfort his party, his country, and even his continent. On a quiet week, it would have been the Conference's headline event and the Prime Minister would have been under a fair amount of pressure.

This week, amidst a worsening economic crisis and fears of a double dip recession in Britain, the PM was carrying the weight of a fearful nation on his shoulders when drafting (and redrafting) his conclusion speech for Manchester.

Did he pull it off? Well, the substance of the script felt a bit like a patchwork quilt with various snippets placed together in a certain order. He lightly tapped on pretty much everything he needed to cover, but in a peculiar sequence. Also, for the first time, Confidence King Cameron looked somewhat shaken under the burden he was carrying. Nevertheless, he spoke with conviction about the successful Tory policies in the education and health sectors, and there were definitely some moments when we caught an audible glimpse of the perfect public-speaking tone that the Prime Minister is known for.

Following the PM's speech, William Hague described the conference as "confident" to journalists. I think this is slightly generous, but I don't think the week was the train wreck that some would have you picture. It is undeniable that the general mood at the CCC was, at times, subdued and the Tory press team will definitely be looking a bit flustered over the coming days. However, they recognised the opportunity that the Conference gave them at such a time of austerity, and they did not let it slip through their fingers.

The speeches were (minus a certain example of felines halting deportation) accurate spotlights on the key issues that this government is facing. The party didn't waste time on slating their coalition partners, but they explained the areas that they are hoping to work on with them. As the conclusion of the Conservative Conference marks the end of Conference Season and MPs return to commons, Britain turns the page over to find a new chapter in this current parliament.

It's unclear as of yet just what it will bring, but it's certain that the Tories are going to be right in the middle of it. Time to face the music or time to waltz into a fully-fledged Conservative government? As I catch up on a month's worth of X Factor and Strictly, only time will tell.

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