Gullible audiences glory in unanimous approval for the fairies of the podium

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Indy Politics

Twenty thousand odd (and I do mean odd) people have attended political conferences over the past three weeks, four or five days each, in filthy weather, packed into rooms that agricultural inspectors wouldn't allow, to hear what they already believe, retold by people they already know.

Twenty thousand odd (and I do mean odd) people have attended political conferences over the past three weeks, four or five days each, in filthy weather, packed into rooms that agricultural inspectors wouldn't allow, to hear what they already believe, retold by people they already know.

It's been the essence of politics, really, and everyone involved has thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

Amid all the cynicism and disillusionment that is so prevalent these days (and God knows, I try to spread as much despondency as the next man), a party conference is, in the Tory MP Dominic Grieve's happy phrase, "a clap-if-youbelieve-in-fairies" affair.

At all three conferences, the audiences showed themselves terrific believers in the fairies at the podium, and the ready applause, ovations, laughter, shouts, cheers, thanks, flowers, and songs made the three leaders' lights burn all the brighter.

We saw those deep, female, "that's-my-boy" smiles when Charlie Kennedy connected with the Liberal Democrats. There was that surge of relief when the Prime Minister showed his irreducible core (and then his other irreducible core) to the Labour faithful. Even William Hague's slightly muffed performance persuaded his stacked hall there was a chance, an outside chance they might just pull it off next year.

For believers, it was like shoving their fingers into a wall socket and getting a full, fast recharge. All those windy doorsteps, canvassing those bleak estates, those meetings in draughty halls, those procedural motions and factional battles - it had all been worthwhile, to arrive in party heaven.

Was it more than therapy? Was there anything said that we should take seriously? I think there was. The humbug wasentertaining, but it was serious entertainment.

The leaders laid out their economic and social position with admirable clarity. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown claimed they will help the poor, the inner cities, the hardworking family, the health service, the education establishment, and - for the sake of brevity - everyone, by very much higher public spending.

They came clean. They came out. Public money will be slewed into (invested, as they put it) public services withlittle talk of reform, of new structures or public-private partnership. The "third way" has been left behind - not to move on to the fourth way but to slip back to the second.

None the less, when we did as Blair and Brown implored ("Forget our personalities and concentrate on what we've achieved!") they were able to lay out much for us to admire, if in a rather negative sense. By sticking to Tory spending limits and by denationalising the Bank of England Labour has presided over an historic economic boom. Between them, they have pulled off the same double act that revitalised the United States: a lefty figurehead to feel the nation's pain, combined with a right-wing congress to keep spending down.

But Labour's conference marked the moment when the irreducible core vote called the leadership in. They can't carry on like that. Not even door-to-door pain-feelers will help any more, not unless they come with money.

Mr Blair's claim that he has achieved the final alignment of individual self-interest with public service was, in the most evocative phrase of all three conferences, "a f****** farrago of f****** b******* (FFFB)." (This was Charlie Whelan's critique of the Andrew Rawnsley book that laid bare the rifts, splits, spats and factions in New Labour, but it's a flexible phrase and can be applied to most areas of modern political discourse.)

The Labour pitch has been so successful that Tory conference rhetoric was overhauled to cover it. It was like watching a yacht race where each competitor does exactly what the opposition does, tack for tack, sail for sail, reach for reach.

So, while Mr Hague offered up a solid base of private enterprise Toryism, he also swore he'd match Labour's spending plans - even to increase them. He too was going to reach out and include all sorts of unlikely characters in the Conservative voting base. He vowed to appeal to everyone, to spend for everyone, to govern for everyone. And give them tax cuts too. It's more humbug, of course, (or more accurately, a FFFB), but in a way that may be important, it helps covert Conservatives to come out.

The beachhead for this newly inclusive party position was established by Michael Portillo whose speech was, in its way, the best of the conference season. He boldly rebranded himself, repositioned himself, maybe even reengineered himself as a half-Spanish, modern, metropolitan liberal. There are those who say he was, in truth, always this, and his torrid affair with Thatcherism was a FFFB, and if true, he will become the Tories' most important electoral asset. How Mr Hague will punish him for this remains to be seen.

Finally, a novice's insight into the viral elements of the body politic. When addressing the Hansard Society's fringe meeting I was on the same desk as Baroness Northover. She's a pleasant woman in her mid-30s, voted out of the decent obscurity of her position in the party machine to the House of Lords. She will hold the seat for the rest of her life, and is not only the best argument for retaining hereditary peers, but also a glimpse of that growing political class, which is almost impenetrable to the outside world.

Career politicians and their support staff are growing into a new élite, a very odd new élite, and whatever leaders say about the many and the few, about Britain's hard-working families, about dignity and independence in retirement, it seems to me that this élite is what government primarily represents.