The bluffer's guide to the Tory conference

A climactic leader's speech, a new-found macho Shadow Chancellor and a surprise Army recruit spiced up an otherwise dull week
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Indy Politics

Don't mention the election

After years of coming to pre-election conferences to console each other and prepare for the massacre ahead, the new poll-topping Tories should have descended on Manchester in the mood for a shindig. But, by order of Chairman Eric, there was to be no party for the Conservatives. Eric Pickles, the no-nonsense Northerner designated as the "face of the conference" had warned against complacency in the run-up to the event, and he prowled the various gatherings to make sure everyone had taken on board the message of restraint. Particularly out of bounds was any dalliance with champagne, that emblem of the feckless, overpaid ruling classes.

Champagne David is me name

How disappointing, then, that the most notable trangressor of Pickles' Law was the leader himself. David Cameron was photographed happily holding a champagne flute at the traditionally lavish party thrown by The Spectator. The picture immediately made it on to the Mirror's front page, under the headline "Fizzy Rascal". Mr Pickles was not amused. But the most frightening response came from within the Cameron household. Samantha Cameron said she had given her husband "a good talking to" after the gaffe. Further down the food chain, Philip Whittington, 27, was banned from the conference over claims that he failed to pay for a £150 bottle of champagne at a Manchester hotel. "My friends rather foolishly said I should make myself scarce," he said after being released from an overnight stay in a cell. "So, rather foolishly, I did and went outside the hotel, where the police... arrested me, even though we had always intended to pay."

Age of austerity

At least George Osborne was doing his best to make sure that hard reality dominated the thoughts of most Conservatives from the early moments of the conference. Labour has identified Mr Osborne as a weak link in the Tory team, but he graduated from teenaged Shadow Chancellor to the Conservatives' enforcer in less than an hour at the Manchester podium. "We're all in this together," the heir to a multimillion-pound fortune told delegates as he rattled through an austerity programme he claims would save the UK £7bn under a Tory government. A public sector pay freeze, a rise in the retirement age and swingeing cuts across Whitehall: the package represented a calculated gamble for a party that could have kept a lid on such announcements until much closer to an election. The speech might have earned Mr Osborne credit for his honesty – and his new-found macho persona – but his most significant contribution to the week may have been as bad cop to Mr Cameron's good cop, discomforting his audience so much that anything the leader subsequently offered in reassurance was likely to be greeted with excessive gratitude. Ultimately, Mr Osborne will have to ensure he does not end up as the fall-guy for any policy problems in the coming months.

Just like the old days

Mr Cameron and his colleagues took every opportunity to remind us that we are now dealing with "Modern Conservatives", a brand as far removed from the Thatcherite past as New Labour was from the regime of Michael Foot. But the nostalgic did not have far to look for reassurance that the modernisers had not quite eradicated all remnants of conferences past. First, there was Boris Johnson: quite apart from his salutation to Manchester as "one of the few great British cities I have yet to insult", the Mayor of London lurched off-message by suggesting that a Tory government should promise a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty even if it had been ratified by all EU members before the general election. The intervention stamped painfully on Mr Cameron's attempts to hold a line on the treaty in the face of a furious assault from Eurosceptics.

It was not his only retro-style Euro-row: the spokesman of Europe, Mark Francois, was forced into an emergency meeting with the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, amid ongoing complaints about the allegedly anti-Semitic views of some of the Tories' new allies in the European Parliament.

That went well, then

The Tories' PR machine had lined up a few surprises to maintain interest throughout a dull week. Not least the announcement that General Sir Richard Dannatt, the former head of the Army, was joining the party as a defence adviser. "I hope this isn't a political gimmick," said the shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling. "We've seen too many appointments in this government of external people, where it's all been about Gordon Brown's PR." After a word in his ear, an embarrassed Mr Grayling said he was "delighted" to have Sir Richard on board. The video appearance of the traditional Labour supporter Bono raised more eyebrows, though many of them were from older Tories wondering who the babbling Irishman was. "We're not sure it worked," said one Tory aide.

Did the Conservative leader clinch the deal?

What they said...

"Like it or not, they looked like a government. They sound as if they know what they mean, they like themselves, they are not apologetic and not much divides them. The dull grey front bench only makes Cameron shine the brighter."

Polly Toynbee, The Guardian

"The Tories have no plan for growth. A deep ignorance of economics within the party, and a fear of departing from gesture politics, cause a reluctance to take seriously the measure needed to revive our private sector: tax cuts."

Simon Heffer, The Daily Telegraph

"Dave... intends to put Rohypnol in all your champagne. This is the Rohypnol conference! You're all being systematically date-raped into the delusion that there is anything conservative about this Conservative Party."

Peter Hitchens, Bruges Group fringe meeting

What we say ...

This was the week when the Tories finally realised how close they are to government, but were not quite ready to announce the fact to the electorate. Mr Cameron's speech could have laid out more tangible elements of a programme for government, but he failed to clinch the deal.

Conservatives by numbers

£7bn Amount that George Osborne claims will be slashed from public spending under his austerity proposals.

57 Minutes that David Cameron took to deliver his conference speech.

12% Tory lead over Labour on the eve of the conference, according to a ComRes poll for the IoS.

12,000 Number of Conservative delegates in Manchester.