The Conservatives made the journey home from their Manchester party conference buoyed by their leaders’ aspirations: aspirations for a better Britain with lower taxes, a benefit system to ensure the young ‘earned or learned’ and a promised freeze of fuel duty – the sequel to deficit reduction and economic growth. So, as the party prepares for the 2015 election, the question will be: are the Tories ‘new’ or ‘blue’?
The evidence from the BBC, if it is to be trusted, suggests that the party is nothing if not ‘new’. The pictures from Manchester showed a visually smooth conference, a smart hall packed with glossy under 30-somethings who could also be seen queuing for the cameras for the ‘random’ interviews or packing the Paxman studio to give their ‘take’ on the speeches. It came as no surprise that they endorsed modernisation and trumpeted the importance of reaching out to ‘the young’. The beautiful hairdos and slick voices represented the triumph of PR over substance. This was no land, it seemed, for old men (or women), and certainly not for Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, invited to address the fringe, but whose security pass was apparently withdrawn.
But you would be wrong to believe the party to be more Blair than blue. Yes, the sense of a modernisation machine dedicated to creating a more presentable image than the greyer, dowdier one of the past, was inescapable. But in the bars and hotels of Manchester, the true impression was of a conference which had two faces. Men and women, of every age, for whom the party does not represent the fads of passing fashion, but stands for the age-old concerns of voters, though thinner on the ground than they used to be in Brighton or Blackpool, were there; conservatively minded men and women, loyal, yes ‘hard working’, keeping the spirit of the voluntary party alive, working in constituencies from Cambridge to Carlisle, from Newport to Solihull. They came to show the flag (not a green one either) for the values in which they believe and which no amount of spin can undermine. They know that their country must change, it must cut the size of the state and tax less, it must tackle dismal educational standards and set in place a system of training to rival Germany, and it must bring costs under control. For that the tax and public spending bill must come down, and enterprise, without which this country will fail to compete in a global market, must flourish. For that too, the ever-growing burden of European costs and controls must be tackled so that people have work and can pay their way for themselves and their families.
Francis Maude closed that conference in, of all places, a Newsnight studio: dowdy and unslick, he took on the Paxman cross-examination about cutting benefit for the under 25s. Young people, he confirmed, should not start working life on the dole, but be earning or training. And yes, they should live at home if not earning, unless (as now) they were at risk from their circumstances. He summed up the feelings of a country to which Beveridge spoke in the war years, decent people from every generation, from every party. Families matter and the expectation must be that each household has at least one breadwinner. This was no scripted interview, nor the result of a PR operation. But it showed that there is much to be said for a conservative party made up of the reflective, the grey and the clever.