The Conservative party conference, image-wise, was a festival of traditionalism. The flag was everywhere, for instance - though that's the style these days, and not exclusive to the Tories' Manchester bash. The flag of the Union even managed to splash itself all over the Conservatives' own logo, albeit an awkward angle that made it look semi-Scandinavian. Why can't political parties get the flag right? When Labour tried it, the red bits came out weirdly pink and the blue bits were sky blue. You'd think they'd both know better by now - but whatever. Off-topic.
Traditionalism, then, was very much the feeling of the week. You could see it in the banners they put up all over the place. Block blue, white writing, bold typeface, sans-serif. The Conservatives are very comfortable at looking corporate, more so than any of the other parties, and that came across loud and clear in the way they marketed their conference. It was, to put it simply, the 'steady-as-she-goes' approach - no histrionics, no loud bangs, nothing swivel-eyed. Calm, measured, just what you'd expect. Even Boris reined himself in.
The reason for this outbreak of stability among Conservatives is the fact that we're now coming up to within eighteen months of the next election, and this is the time to stick the political cruise control on and get settled into the right speed. Conference for the Tories acted as practice for 2015: organising their attack lines on Labour, preparing their doorstep selling points, focusing relentlessly on getting that majority.
Enter the Prime Minister, David Cameron, the captain at the helm of the good ship Tory, stood behind a good old-fashioned lectern - no wandering the stage aimlessly like a deputy head teacher on assembly day for the PM. He gave his speech - fifty minutes long, nearly six thousand words - and then, well, not much, really. The Prime Minister's big day in front of the party faithful was pretty much bounced by the media, in favour of covering either the US government shutdown or Ed Miliband's spat with the Daily Mail.
Did Dave deliver a damp squib? Well, yes, in the main. Cameron's speech was very light on policy, with the only real new suggestion being a pledge to remove benefits from under-25s who aren't in work or education. Everything else was rather vague, to be honest. Cameron told us that 'we are not there yet' - well, where are we not, yet? The 'land of opportunity', that's where. It's not 'job done, it's job begun'. How are we going to get this job done? By kicking the young off benefits, obviously. And getting shout-outs in for the armed forces and our dearly departed Margaret.
It all felt a little bit by-the-numbers, a little bit autopilot. But perhaps that shows the effectiveness of the Tory conference, and the branding of the Tory party in general over the last six months or so. Cameron spent his whole speech reiterating his key themes, and the reason nothing felt too fresh was because he was plodding over old ground, hammering home the message that the Conservatives will be peddling from now until 2015. If Ed Miliband's speech the week before had been setting out Labour's stall for the next election, consider Cameron's speech as an advertisement reminding you that he himself is selling reasonably priced fruit and veg on exactly the same market.
The themes upon which Cameron has chosen to focus stem from the Lynton Crosby school of electioneering - appeal to the base. He's been rehearsing these lines since the last PMQs before the summer, when they hit Miliband hard. The idea at Tory HQ is that they'll be able to spend the next year and a half saying exactly what Cameron did back in July - 'The deficit is down, unemployment is falling, crime is down, welfare is capped, and Abu Qatada is back in Jordan'. They've set out their own record, simply and plainly - sticking it on the posters, too - and believe they'll be able to energise their right-wing core vote off the back of it.
The idea of Cameron appealing to his base in order to secure a majority next time around is not a new one. Ever since the modern, green, fluffy, cuddly Conservative party failed to scrape over the line in 2010, the idea of a more traditional Tory manifesto for 2015 has been floated several times. The fly in the ointment for the PM, though, is that the right needs to be reunited. At the moment, it's split, with UKIP potentially harvesting key Tory votes in marginals across the country. Nigel Farage's band of happy-go-lucky Eurosceptics may not be hitting the highs that they were earlier on in the year, but they've still got enough momentum to make a majority for the Conservatives impossible. If Cameron can just tack to the right in such a fashion as to bring those voters back - and having a traditional, old-fashioned, steady-as-she-goes conference is just one ingredient to that recipe - then he might be able to conjure up a win.
The problem with this strategy, of course, is that it fatally underestimates the UKIP phenomenon. You will hear Tory politicians - Andrew Mitchell in the New Statesman, for example - speaking of UKIP voters as 'our cousins', and suggesting that they can be brought back into the Conservative fold. But they can't. They started leaving the Tories because, after Cameron's election to the leadership in 2005, the party moved towards the centre, embracing ideas that the would-be-Ukippers couldn't accept. To hear the man who essentially showed them the exit door now trying to woo them back doesn't wash with these people. They're of the opinion that politicians are all the same, and until the Tories get a new leader, one whose right-wing credentials are more credible, these voters are gone to the Conservatives.
Cameron's speech was solid, professional, and well-delivered, if a little sedate and dry. The error he made with it was designing it for a constituency of voters that he discarded, and that he does not have the tools to recapture. Meanwhile, the party he leads finds itself retreating further and further into an electoral trap, whereby it is too far away from the centre to harvest any votes there, but hampered with a tainted image of weakness and concession for the voters it craves on the right. It is a Catch-22 from which the Prime Minister shows no signs of emerging.
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