Tired party does its best to varnish over the cracks

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Indy Politics
Tory grass-roots supporters left Bournemouth yesterday declaring that they were more united and that John Major had renewed their will to win the general election.

"I am motivated. I will be out canvassing this afternoon," said Bobbie Jones, chairwoman of the Eastleigh Tories, who is fighting to regain the seat lost to the Liberal Democrats in a by-election after the death of the Tory MP Stephen Milligan in a bizarre sex act .

Dame Margaret Fry - Emma Nicholson's Tory president before the MP defected to the Liberal Democrats in Devon West and Torridge - was also emphatic about the success of the Tories' conference week in Bournemouth.

"I have been working for the party for 50 years, and this will go down as one of our greatest conferences. We are going back to our constituencies with even greater enthusiasm."

But do annual party conferences make any difference in the long run?

It is in seats like theirs that the 1997 general election will be won or lost. In 1986 - in the week that The Independent was launched - the Tories arrived in Bournemouth looking demoralised after a successful Labour conference. They left fizzing with ideas, and went on to win a third term under Margaret Thatcher.

The turn-around was achieved by a barrage of policy announcements. Ten years later, the Government looks tired - the announcements of the past week were stocktaking measures for the last Queen's Speech of the Parliament.

After 17 years in office, party strategists are less interested in presenting the Conservatives as Maoists, committed to continuous revolution. The main item on the agenda this week was unity.

Baroness Thatcher set the tone by giving her successor her unequivocal backing with the order to their supporters: "Stop the talking - let's get cracking."

Mr Major's platform kiss for Lady Thatcher became the leitmotif for the week. The Prime Minister's gesture of support for his Chancellor - holding hands - was another. The message to the Euro-sceptics was clear: I am backing Mr Clarke and there will be no change of policy on Europe this side of a general election.

Former minister Robert Hughes, one of Mr Major's campaign allies, said yesterday: "The turning-point was the Chancellor's speech, because he put to the conference two messages that they did not want to hear - continuing the policy on Europe, and damping down expectations on tax cuts."

Mr Major sought to contrast his own dogged style with Tony Blair's brand of slickness. Michael Portillo - one of the Cabinet Euro-sceptics who led the calls for unity this week - said: "His sincerity oozed out of his speech."

The Major speech-writers have no need for the playwright Sir Ronald Miller, who supplied the best lines for Lady Thatcher. A Miller thriller, called The Coat of Varnish, will be playing at the end of the pier in Bournemouth next week.

Bournemouth and Mr Major's speech have given the Tories a fighting chance. But if Mr Clarke fails to deliver some cuts in taxes in his Budget in a few weeks' time, the gloss over the new show of unity in the Tory Party will peel before Christmas.