As delegates gathered for Conservative Party Conference earlier this week, they were greeted to quite a welcome on the streets of Manchester. Angry protesters were out in force and whipping up a noise, wearing masks, waving anarchist flags and shouting “Tory Scum” and other (unprintable) obscenities at attendees making their way to the Conference security entrance. As the attendees walked through the police barriers and security lines, they passed underneath large signs emblazoned with the Conservative Party’s latest slogan, “Security, Stability and Opportunity” and into the courtyard of the Manchester Conference Centre – an oasis of relative calmness, order and business-like activity.
Despite the unpleasant and hateful abuse that people were subjected to, you could imagine that some in the Conservative Party were quietly pleased about the contrast and message on display here. A Party triumphant after securing a stunning election victory – given a mandate to govern, in part secured through providing many voters with the reassurance of security and leadership in the face of uncertainty and chaos. Furthermore, they now face an opposition reduced to shouting from the side-lines and adopting radical left wing positions which may excite their activists, but alienate them from large parts of the electorate.
There was little doubt that the Conservatives would aim to exploit this opportunity to seize the centre ground (or the “common ground” as they now prefer to call it) and focus on outlining its long-term programme of economic and social policies to position themselves, once again, as the natural party of government. This was evident from the atmosphere around the hotels and bars at Conference, which was one of excitement and jubilation, but also had a strong sense of seriousness, recognising the many policy and political challenges that lay ahead for the Party and the country. Fringe debates on policy matters, ranging from energy, healthcare and financial services, were largely conducted under the basis that the Conservatives would be in power for at least another ten years. It was hard to find anyone in Manchester disagreeing with this presumption.
No-one seemed to recognise this more that the Chancellor, George Osborne, whose speech on Monday contained a number of substantial policy announcements on the UK’s economic regeneration, including a new ‘National Infrastructure Commission’ to speed up the policy and planning decisions on vital infrastructure projects. This was Osborne keenly demonstrating his new ‘common ground’ credentials by not only borrowing a Labour policy, but also a Labour politician, Lord Adonis, to chair the new body. Osborne’s second big announcement – that local councils will retain all the revenue from business rates – is likely to have far reaching consequences on local government finance. These announcements, along with his pet project, the Northern Powerhouse, were all designed to showcase his ‘long term economic plan’ credentials, but were also designed to set the week’s agenda and prevent the Conference being side-tracked by issues less helpful to the Party.
Before the Conference began, many newspaper commentators speculated that the week would be dominated by the two themes of (1) the upcoming European Referendum and (2) speculation over who would lead the Party after David Cameron steps down. These two issues certainly did arise, but were, arguably, reasonably well contained by the Party’s leadership. The Conservative Party’s reputation for being obsessed about the issue of Europe has never been more deserved. Fringe events on the EU referendum were by far the most popular at Conference, with many of rooms too small to take in the mass of keen delegates. The sensitivities from high-command about this were clearly evident, with Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, being pulled from speaking at a Business for Britain event on Monday at a few hours’ notice. As for leadership speculation, the main candidates – George Osborne, Boris Johnson and Theresa May – all received significant amounts of attention for their speeches, with Theresa May providing the Conference’s most controversial moment with a hard line, anti-immigration speech that felt out-of-step with the approach taken by most other members of the Cabinet.
It was left to David Cameron’s closing speech on Wednesday to cement the Conservative Party’s claim to the ‘common ground’ of British politics and set the tone for his second term in office. It was a bold and assured speech, embracing the virtues of Compassionate Conservatism and focused on a range of socially liberal-minded causes including tackling discrimination, reforming prisons and schools and addressing deep rooted problems with poverty and social mobility. Cameron received praise for a return to a more progressive vision, reminiscent of his early years of his leadership, while some critics have argued that his centrist rhetoric is merely useful cover for his pursuit of right-wing policies, including tough welfare and public spending cuts.
His critics and opponents, however, do not appear to be in an effective position to challenge him or his Party. Indeed, one of the key conclusions of this week’s Conference – with Labour’s shift to the left and the Liberal Democrats vastly diminished status – is that the Conservative Party’s seizure of the political centre ground appears to be largely uncontested.