Born-again Conservatives will come unspun in Bournemouth

The Tories say their conference will be about clarity and substance, not spin. But their policies say otherwise
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Indy Politics

The Conservatives head for Bournemouth with a spring in their step. At last they have got the measure of the enemy. New Labour is all spin and arrogance. So this week the alternative government will be all meaty substance. We will be deluged with policies. Their message is that they have a message. Their spin is that they have renounced spin.

The Conservatives head for Bournemouth with a spring in their step. At last they have got the measure of the enemy. New Labour is all spin and arrogance. So this week the alternative government will be all meaty substance. We will be deluged with policies. Their message is that they have a message. Their spin is that they have renounced spin.

That is the recurring theme of our interview today with the party chairman, Sir Michael Ancram. The visual symbolism of the conference stage will be powerful, he tells us. It will be uncluttered. There will be no gimmicks. Here is a conference that has opted for clarity over glitter.

What you see is what you get. In his own polite way, Sir Michael is going for the kill. Even so, to pull this one off, to proclaim your clarity over the Government's devious woolliness, you must be on the strongest of grounds. There is no point in appearing to be clear if you are not clear. Nor is there much mileage in taunting a government for weaknesses unless those weaknesses are vividly apparent.

Curiously, the Government spun ferociously when it was most popular. In its first couple of years, tiny evasive announcements were made to seem like revolutionary policies. News that Tony Blair was to visit a council estate, where he would utter a few words, was presented, and greeted, as if he had radically reformed the welfare state. If he said that he believed in higher standards in schools a revolution in education was ecstatically proclaimed. An insecure Government spun to disguise its insecurity. A doting media pleaded with the spinners to spin some more as newspapers competed with each other to produce the most slavishly adoring headlines.

That is part of the Government's difficulties now. Before the election it promised a few incremental reforms. The result itself and the hype that followed bloated expectations, which have not been met. But belatedly the Government's political conjurers have put away their box of tricks. The voters and the newspapers have turned at the moment when Mr Blair has ceased to be dependent on spin, when he is moving into a more substantial phase.

In Brighton something odd happened. What we saw was what we got. The claim being made for next week at Bournemouth, that we will enjoy sunny days of spin-free focus on policy, was carried out last week by the spinners themselves. That is not to say that the rainy days in Brighton passed without political management. There was brilliant, astute political management. But it was all there on the surface.

Both Mr Blair and Mr Brown managed to make speeches that brought them closer to their party without denting at all their broader appeal to Middle England. There has been much comment about the use of the term Labour without the New, Tony Blair's red tie, Gordon Brown's evangelical tone. How tempting to conclude dramatically that this was the week in which they found their party, as they lost touch with the country.

But read the texts of those speeches. Both mentioned the scope for tax cuts. Both offered more help for pensioners across the board. Both implied that they would offer some sort of package on fuel. Neither speech was that different to the ones they have delivered at party conferences since 1994. The exception was Mr Blair's lapse into political philosophy last year.

The broad strategy remains in place and it seems to me is backed by both men, in spite of any tensions between them. When Peter Kilfoyle resigned from the Government earlier this year, complaining about the neglect of the core vote, the Cabinet held a rare wide-ranging political discussion. It was Mr Brown who insisted that the party would make a fatal mistake if it placed the "core vote" against "Middle England". Kilfoyle, he argued, was leading them into a Tory trap, of narrowing their appeal. Last week the "core vote" danced merrily to Mr Brown's tunes, but the words were aimed, still, at the broad constituency that elected them in 1997.

In the past, under Mr Blair's leadership, attending a Labour conference was like being locked up in the London Palladium for four days watching deft footwork and some bland entertainment. In Brighton there was real, meaty politics, again just as the Tories promise for Bournemouth this week. Mr Blair and Mr Brown did not blink in the crisis over fuel. Nor in the debate over pensions did they flinch from their view that cash should be aimed at those who need it most. Last week we saw them, in front of our eyes, sticking to a belief. The setbacks in the polls, the rows with the unions over pensions, the fuel dispute, all have forced the Government to define itself and its message a bit more clearly.

In our interview today we ask Sir Michael Ancram to explain the essence of his party's message. He replies, "We're listening. We're going to talk about the real things. We're not going to pull the wool over your eyes." Yet step back from the clear message that they have a message and will not be spinning, and you find unclear policies masquerading as a coherent programme. The sense of clarity is dependent on the spinners going out to do their work.

I am surprised that someone as astute as William Hague has got himself into a situation where nearly all his policies are uncosted and Michael Portillo can announce a cut in fuel tax based on the fact that "economic experts" say the money is available. Seemingly without any confidence in their own abilities, they quote the economics correspondent of Newsnight to prove their case. "Evan Davis says there is an unexpected £13bn surplus." Mr Davis is an excellent correspondent and a charming man, but he should not be the basis on which the main opposition party offers a tax cut. If Mr Brown, in opposition, had said he planned to build more hospitals because Evan Davis had told Newsnight there would be some spare cash around, he would have been rightly blown apart.

Mr Hague's earlier "baseball cap" phase symbolised a smarter strategy. He never looked silly in that cap, nor was it preposterous for him to visit the Notting Hill Carnival. The media mocked and the voters turned away because everyone was intoxicated with New Labour at the time. If Mr Hague were to win the next election he would look cool wearing a pair of swimming trunks at Prime Minister's Question Time. The political context determines whether someone looks good. His early intentions were to head for the centre ground with a modernised, inclusive party. Even though Sir Michael Ancram claims in our interview that this is what the party has become, the policies suggest otherwise.

Mr Hague should have been patient. He should have donned his baseball cap for a little longer. Whatever the polls suggest at the moment, and for all the frenzied excitement of the past three years, the political positioning of the parties has not changed greatly since the election in 1997.