Highlights, winners and losers from across the political spectrum: The final verdict on the 2013 party conferences

As politicians from all parties recover from another exhausting and eventful conference season, how has the political landscape changed?

Liberal Democrats

Glasgow

Key message

It might have been tough for us to enter into Coalition with the Tories, but it has been worth it: no-one can ever accuse us again of having no chance of getting into Government. That could well happen again in 2015, when we could be restraining influence on ideological Conservatives, or ensure Labour doesn’t wreck the economy.

Key policy

Nick Clegg’s announcement that all five-to-seven year-old state school pupils will receive free school meals from next September. The £600m plan was designed to boost the health and educational attainment of children, but will save hard-pressed families around £8 a week. The Education minister David Laws also announced an initiative to cut the cost of school uniforms.

Conference star

Danny Alexander may never be the party’s most charismatic minister, but Clegg allies trumpeted his growing popularity in Lib Dem ranks as a sign that the party was maturing. As a bonus, his plans for the ageing fleet of four Trident submarines to be replaced in a slimmed-down form were backed by activists.

Unwelcome distraction

Business Secretary Vince Cable kept the leadership waiting over whether he would actually turn up to support it in a debate on the handling of the economy. Then he went off message at the Independent fringe by saying the Lib Dems could leave the Coalition early, contradicting Clegg’s insistence it would endure “right up to the wire”.

Best speech

Charles Kennedy appearing at a conference is a rare enough event in itself these days. But this year he provided a sparkling cameo performance – passionately defending the Lib Dems’ pro-European credentials – in which the former party leader showed he still has some of that old magic. He could prove a useful asset in a daunting general election campaign.

How did the leader do?

This was Nick Clegg’s most comfortable conference since the Coalition was formed. Mutterings about his leadership have almost vanished and he won a series of key votes on economic strategy, taxation, Trident, nuclear power and tuition fees. He produced a memorable rhetorical trick when he listed 15 Tory policy proposals which he had thwarted.

Success or failure?

A qualified success. The Lib Dems announced voter-friendly measures and repeatedly took credit for raising the income tax threshold, but there is no denying the party is still in a grim place electorally. Little happened that might change that in the short term.

Success rating ★★★

UK Independence Party

London

Key message

We have broken through the cosy consensus over Europe and are now the third force in British politics ahead of the Lib Dems.

Key policy

Complete opposition to giving Romanians and Bulgarians full access to the UK from January. This stance brings together what Nigel Farage’s troops view as their two most appealing policies – a hardline approach to immigration and profound hostility to the EU.

Conference star

Patrick O’Flynn, the chief political commentator of the Daily Express, was given a plum speaking slot on the conference’s first day. He is being groomed as a key voice of Ukip.

Unwelcome distraction

Euro MP Godfrey Bloom was responsible for disastrous publicity with an ill-judged quip about “sluts” and by hitting a TV journalist round the head with a pamphlet.

Best speech

Paul Nuttall, the party’s deputy leader, pitched his appeal to disillusioned former Labour voters. As a bald Liverpudlian, he looks very different from many Ukip stalwarts and is a persuasive public speaker.

How did the leader do?

Nigel Farage is an always entertaining performer, even if his keynote speech to the Ukip faithful – predictably dominated by Europe – was slightly under par.

Success or failure?

Ukip’s chance of capitalising on a year of stunning success at the ballot box was wrecked by Bloom’s double outburst. For the first time its deliberations were about to be taken seriously by the media – and it blew its chance in the limelight. Even Farage admitted the conference had been “ruined”.

Success rating

Labour

Brighton

Key message

We will tackle the living standards crisis, in which prices have risen faster than earnings for 38 of the 39 months since the Coalition was formed. (We’d rather talk about that than the deficit).

Key policy

Gas and electricity prices to be frozen for 20 months for householders and businesses if Labour wins the general election. Although the energy firms warned the move could deter investment and result in blackouts, opinion polls showed it is popular with hard-pressed consumers.

Conference star

Andy Burnham, the shadow Health Secretary, enlivened the conference with a barnstorming speech in which he promised that unravelling the Coalition’s NHS reforms would happen in the first year of a Labour government. His rapturous reception gave Ed Miliband a dilemma over whether to move him in his imminent Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. The Tories have been attacking his record as Health Secretary in the previous Labour Government.

Unwelcome distraction

Damian McBride. Gordon Brown’s former spin-doctor, turned up in Brighton to promote his book, which revived memories of New Labour’s dark side and the Blair-Brown feud.

Best speech

Ed Miliband. For the second year running, he memorised it. His conversational speech didn’t say much about the deficit or education, but won over his audience with his message that “Britain can do better than this”. By standing up to the energy firms, he made it harder for the Conservatives to brand him as “weak”.

How did the leader do? 

Well. He needed a successful conference to draw a line under a lacklustre summer, and to silence carping by some Labour MPs about his apparent lack of strategy. But he cannot afford to disappear off the public radar as he did after last year’s conference. And he is gambling that Labour can win a “cost of living election” when voters still have doubts about the party’s economic credibility.

Success or failure?

Some new policies, on apprentices and asking the Office for Budget Responsibility to audit Labour’s tax and spending plans, had not been fully road-tested. But Miliband hit the bullseye with his energy price freeze. Although the Conservatives accused him of lurching to the left and going back to the 1970s, his promise set the agenda for the Tory conference and forced David Cameron to admit the Government needs to do more to tackle the living standards crisis.

Success rating ★★★★

Conservatives

Manchester

 

Key message

It may be tough out there, but we’re on your side. The conference had one aim alone: to reconnect the Tories with middle income Britain, without whom the party will lose in 2015. From the slogan “for hardworking people”, to announcements on rewarding work and restricting benefits, every message was to reinforce this one central point.

Key policy

David Cameron’s set-piece speech was devoid of specific policy announcements, but the party used its conference to provide details of its £200 married couple’s tax rebate, a plan to make the long-term unemployed work for the dole and moves to deport suspected illegal immigrants before they can appeal.

Conference star

Undoubtedly 12-year-old Xantaine Campbell, who addressed the conference before Cameron’s speech. Her assured but unprecocious speech about her free school succeeded where 16-year-old William Hague once failed. Even hard-bitten journalists had a lump in their throat.

Unwelcome distraction

The Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, who was caught on tape at a fringe meeting suggesting that global warming might not be all bad.

“Remember that for humans, the biggest cause of death is cold in winter, far bigger than heat in summer,” he claimed. “It would also lead to longer growing seasons and you could extend growing a little further north into some of the colder areas.” Not quite such good news for Africa though or Cameron’s pledge to be the greenest Government ever.

Best speech

George Osborne’s assured performance on Monday neatly framed the economic debate ahead of the next election and set a bear-trap for Labour. By promising to run a budget surplus throughout next Parliament he has put the onus on Ed Balls to say if he’ll follow suit. Refuse and Balls will be painted as economically irresponsible – accept and the shadow Chancellor will much less room for vote winning give-aways.

How did the leader do?

Cameron’s keynote speech was workmanlike but uninspiring. The Prime Minister does not like the acoustics in the cavernous Manchester conference and it showed. He never really got his audience fired up and the speech was short on memorable lines. That being said, getting a Conservative Party conference to applaud social workers is entirely to his credit.

Success or failure?

Not a particularly memorable conference but one which succeeded in clearly drawing the political battle lines with Labour in the run-up to 2015. The Big Society is dead – it’s the economy stupid. 

Success rating ★★★

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