Rallying the troops for the ultimate test:Tories buoyed by turning economic tide

Conference season: As the party faithful gather for the last time before the election, Anthony Bevins looks at their hopes and fears
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The Independent Online
Conservatives - Bournemouth; 8-11 October

Slogan: Life is better with the Conservatives.

The big aim: To come out of the conference season with a Labour lead that is slipping. The party command will drive home the message that after more than 17 years of Tory government, things are beginning to get better, with rising living standards, and that a change to Labour could ruin it. Having established that negative foundation, ministers will start to bolt on the added-value - the vision for a fifth term of government.

Who are these people? If Labour delegates, like the party leadership, have moved to the centre of political life, Conservative representatives have become more right wing. The fringe meetings of men like Michael Portillo, John Redwood and Lord Tebbit show a fervour that is absent from the other two parties; it is a fascinating sight, often more interesting than the conference itself. While there have always been right-wing extremes at conference, the right became mainstream, even legitimate, under Margaret Thatcher and that has survived her departure.

Stage management: The Tories are past-masters, but that has never meant perfection. Home secretaries have been baited beyond endurance by the sado-masochist wing, party chairmen have been lambasted for failing to sell an impossible message, and Europe has emerged as the great chasm into which the party is poised to plunge. Activists are to get the opportunity to question ministers but there are unlikely to be any upsets. Questions are vetted and little is left to chance.

Disaster zones: Conservative frustrations inside the conference itself all-too-often find redress through the virulence of debate on the fringe. Europe again dominates the extra-curricular activities, and the party's very real divisions on this issue appear to be more pervasive and more damaging than anything any other party can offer.

Policy initiatives: For this reason alone, it is imperative that the party creates diversionary publicity. While party bosses will want to keep their surprises up their sleeves, they have already floated the notion of the Prime Minister's support for the "hard-working class", which seems to mean that those on benefit should work for it, and youngsters who offend should be subjected to curfews. Apparently, these ideas are to be packaged as the sort of "non-nonsense values" that key working-class voters will share.

Low life: The balls; whether organised by the Young Conservatives or the Federation of Conservative Students, who express their libertarian feelings with the kind of exhibitionism that would attract a life sentence if Michael Howard had his way and if the perpetrators were not just high- spirited Tories letting off a bit of steam.

Highlights: The appearance of Baroness Thatcher to bestow her blessing on John Major, and the leader's speech. Not so much the speech itself, but the US-style build-up - with distributed flags and bunting, hyped- up videos and all the accoutrements of a mass hysteria - that then tends to get flattened by the weight of words and the leaden manner of delivery.

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