For the last decade or so, Tory party Conferences have been been like gatherings of an obscure cult – devotees of a faith that time had passed by. New Messiahs came and went: William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard. False Gods appeared like Michael Portillo, urging a clean break with Old Testament Thacherism. But no one really cared about the Tories’ petty passions, their esoteric doctrines, and congregations dwindled. Until now. Suddenly, the Tories are back.
The atmosphere in Manchester last week couldn’t have been more different from that of the humbled, apologetic almost abject party of the last twelve years. Peckers are up, eyes bright and tails are bushier than ever. Conference looks younger – all the wannabe politicians, with their spiky haircuts and TK Maxx suits, who used to hang around the Labour Conference now seem to have decamped to the Tories.
The women are more attractive. I know it sounds facile and sexist to judge a party on the appearance of its female camp followers, but believe me it is the first thing you notice. For years, younger, fashion-conscious women wouldn’t have been been dead at a Tory conference. It was strictly for the over sixties – the average age, indeed, of a Conservative Party member in the late nineties. Now the Tories are socially acceptable again, even eligible.
Going to and from various events I kept bumping into Zac Goldsmith, the glamorous and rich Tory environment guru, who seemed to have been posted outside every venue, surrounded by elegant women and young men with those suit jackets that are too small for them. Hah – I thought – bet he’s been placed there by the PR people as a permanent photo op. Until I asked him and it emerged that, as a heavy smoker, he has to spend a lot of his time out doors.
Of course, many of the sharp and smart young men and women I saw around aren’t actually Tories, but representatives of the many firms, lobby groups, NGOs and trade associations here to lobby the people everyone expects to form the next government. But that only confirms the sense of a party back on a winning streak.
I recalled the days I used to attend Tory Conferences under Margaret Thatcher. Then the Tories exuded power like a pungent pheromone. They knew who they were: the most electorally successful party in Europe. The party of government; inheritors of The Great Tradition: Pitt, Disaeli, Churchill, Thatcher. Tories were bred for government and expected it as their birthright.
A little of that arrogance is back, but not much. Every Tory I spoke to insisted that there was still ‘ a mountain to climb…couldn’t take voters for granted’ etc.. The Tories seem a bit like a young offender who isn’t entirely confident that they’ve gone straight, or an alcoholic only recently on the wagon. Rather like the underclass victims of ‘the broken society’ who featured in the endless Tory videos. Conference these days is less like a series of debates than a film festival intererspersed with chat shows and the odd speech. They even had to put up with a video of Bono.
In the new user friendly Tory party every platform has to have a serial offender (reformed) a member of an ethic minority and a presentable woman. The Tories were trying so hard it hurt. So it was a shock when one of the youngest Tory stars – the shadow education secretary Michael Gove – a man who used to have sideburns and appeared with the luvvies on Newsnight Review – gave the only truly traditional Tory speech of the week. Failing schools? Discipline, school uniforms, harder exams, more discipline. Staff Sergeant Gove even promised a “Troops to Teachers” programme in which soldiers will be fast tracked to the classroom to inject a bit of army discipline instead of that self expression nonsense. Pure Monty Python, but the Tries loved it.
Back in the law and order chat show we had obligatory mix of dark skins, high heels and hard luck stories. In place of capital punishment and prison works, we were offered understanding, summary justice, and, yes, more discipline. To tackle the drunken society the Tories promise to increase drink prices on things like high strength cider – though Buckfast wasn’t mentioned. The SNP claimed a Tory own goal since the Scottish Tories have opposed minimum pricing in Scotland
The Scottish Tories are undoubtedly the weakest link in the new Tory chain. There was precious little glamour at their fringe event. The shadow Scottish secretary, David Mandell, or ” Man dull ” as he is known by his detractors, was on exceptional form – literally boring for Britain. They desperately need something to talk about in this election other than the the West Lothian Question, the Union and Alex Salmond’s perfidy. Then the Scottish parliamentary leader, Annabel Goldie, took the stand, dressed in a lumberjack shirt and trousers. Had she decided to express sartorial solidarity with the proletariat? Had she just come from the first ever gay pride reception at a Tory Conference? No – she had been roped into one of the ‘community initiatives’ that are obligatory for the modern Tories to show they are street smart and down with the people.
Annabel is a great character, but she doesn’t make up for the lack of a proper party in Scotland. They have only one MP and little chance of winning more than three or four in May. It is a shocking reflection on their political failure that while Cameron is streets ahead of Labour in England, in Scotland the Tories are a very poor third, and less popular than under Margaret Thatcher. They can’t go on blaming her legacy and the poll tax. That was all 20 years ago.
The Scottish Conservatives have not reformed. They are time warp Tories, They could worse than take up the calls I heard repeatedly in Manchester – though not from Scottish spokespeople – for Cameron to call an independence referendum. What better way to margialise the SNP and defend the Union by revealing majority support for it in Scotland. It would give Cameron a stake in Scottish politics and make up for the lack of MPs But it’s just not going to happen.
The failure of the Scottish Tories is all the stranger when you realise that many of the brightest Tories in the UK party are Scots. At one of the best fringe events I attended, at the think tank the Centre for Policy Studies, Fraser Nelson, Scottish editor of the Spectator and the former Scotsman editor, Iain Martin did a very good job of popularising the arguments of another Scot Professor Niall Ferguson about the economic crisis. In an important new CPS pamphlet Ferguson warns of the danger of leaving the banking cartels intact. . We are not living in a market economy any more, the Harvard Professor argues, but under a form of “state monopoly capitalism” . A handful of banks that are too big to fail have managed to capture the state. Ferguson argues passionately that if capitalism is to survive then these big banks must be broken up.
This was fascinating. And a million miles from the politically correct chat shows on the conference floor. If only the Scottish Tories had an ounce of this intellectual firepower. If only they could find some way of modernising and tapping into the new energy that Cameron has unleashed. Tories are still a race apart and still the party of wealth, but following my bold probe into the outer reaches of the conference, I can report that there is intelligent life in the Tory Party. Just not as we know it.