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UK Politics

Europe, women, the economy: what we learnt in Manchester

Oliver Wright identifies five key lessons from the Tories' week in the North

The Tories still want to hug the Lib Dems tight – even if their Coalition partners are squirming

One of the striking things about Lib Dem conference was the attacks by senior Liberal Democrats on their Tory partners to appeal to the party faithful. Chris Huhne claimed the Tories "slaver over tax cuts for the rich", while Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, said today's Tories were the "descendents of those who sent children up chimneys".

But this week in Manchester has been different. David Cameron told his ministers not to criticise the Lib Dems in their conference speeches and without exception they have stuck to this. Cameron himself went out of his way to praise Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems in his speech.

The reason for this is two-fold. In hard economic times Mr Cameron does not want to give the impression to voters that the two parties are squabbling. But he also doesn't see political advantage for the Tories in retaliating – far better to play the statesman and let the Lib Dems look petty.

Cameron has neutralised the old Euro-sceptics but has to watch out for the Class of 2010

At a fringe event on Monday to launch a new book on Conservative thinking, the old big Eurosceptic beasts John Redwood and David Davis made a valiant attempt to stand-up for pre-Cameron conservatism. But it has been clear this week that their days of political influence are waning.

At the same time a poll for the website Conservative Home compiled a list of the most influential Tories. Provocatively, David Cameron came second and in first place was the new intake of Tory MPs in 2010. Unlike their predecessors they are not content to be lobby-fodder for the Government. Just before conference more than 100 MPs – many of them new - turned up for the first meeting of an organisation set up by David Cameron's former spokesman George Eustice. This group represents the new Tory Euro-doubters. They don't have the political baggage of the predecessors – and are much greater threat to the Coalition. Privately the whips are worried.

The economic crisis is influencing all Government policy now

In the past if a Tory Government had been faced with a rebellion from the National Trust and the Tory shires over planning reform its quite likely they would have beat a hasty retreat. But not now. Boosting economic growth is the only game in town. That was clear from George Osborne's speech on Monday and will become even more apparent when the Government unveils its growth strategy in the autumn. Just how sensitive the economic situation is was underlined by the last minute re-writing of the PM's conference speech yesterday. A version sent to the press suggested Mr Cameron wanted people to pay off their credit card debts. But when it was pointed out this would further weaken consumer spending it was hastily removed – with red faces all round.

David Cameron has a problem with women voters – but it is hard for him to do anything about

Mr Cameron started the week with an apology for his laddish remarks at Prime Minister's Questions, but his problems with women are more significant than tone alone. This week has highlighted the problem his party has with the female vote. Research shows that during the early days of the Coalition, Tory support among women was 45 per cent, compared to around 34 per cent of men. But since then it has fallen to below that of men in many polls. Overall levels of "approval" for the Coalition have fallen to 25 per cent among women, 8 per cent lower than for men.

Much of the reason for this is economic. Women have been more affected by Government cuts – of the 38,000 new unemployed over the last quarter, 21,000 were women. The number of women out of work now 1.05 million, the highest since 1988.

How the Government deals with this problem is intractable – all Mr Cameron can hope is that by 2015 the economic situation has improved.

Cameron is still the Conservative's biggest electoral asset

Cameron's speech may have been policy light – but in tone and style it was more effective than that of either Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg. Polling suggests that Cameron he is the only main party leader who can attract floating voters to his party and support from the grassroots is still strong. He even got a cheer in the hall for suggesting it was because he was a Conservative that he supported gay marriage. No mean feat.