The Conservatives in Brighton: Tories discover the benefits of debate

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HALLELUJAH] The Conservative Party has discovered a truth it fled from for years. Serious internal debate is not a virus but the lifeblood of politics. It makes parties stronger, not weaker. This dramatic, emotion-laden week in Brighton has clarified arguments, cleared the ground and strengthened a prime minister who seemed weak and faltering.

The strutting self-glorification of the Thatcher years has mostly gone. What would a recession- mired country have thought of the Tories if it had not? In its place was earnest debate about big questions. It is still quite possible that Britain has slipped slowly into one-party government: all the more important, then, that the one party is self-questioning.

Mr Major's refusal to attack Labour or the Liberal Democrats yesterday, when he briskly dismissed them as 'utterly irrelevant', was insulting - but eloquent and half-persuasive, too.

His own speech failed to live up to the rest of this extraordinary conference. The days of word-processing had left it too crafted and bland. It lacked the intellectual rigour and daring of the best of the floor speeches. On the economy, the Prime Minister sounded less involved and urgent than, say, Dee-Dee Dobell, a councillor from Yeovil. On Europe, he was less highbrow - simply less interesting - than half a dozen impassioned representatives from either side of the argument.

So the great traumas of the past weeks were brushed aside with a dismissive, 'But let us not waste time looking back'. So the controversy about the future direction of exchange-rate policy, at the heart of the politics of the conference, rated not a mention. So he spent more time on New Age travellers than on the ERM.

So that was what he meant to do, at least in part. Mr Major had weighed up the options and decided to speak first to his party, not to the markets or the wider audience. He will never be a shamelessly theatrical orator in the Thatcher or Heseltine class, but he knows where the Tory party likes to be tickled and fondled. And he tickles. He fondles.

So a whole army of familar demons - educationists, bureaucrats, lefty students, vandals, social security spongers and unnamed Europeans who offer Britain 'gratuitous advice' - were summoned, paraded before the conference and sternly consigned to their fate.

Easy to sneer? Up to a point, right to sneer. But Mr Major is a political sophisticate with an unerring feel for middlebrow, middle England. What he was doing had a direct relevance to the battles ahead over European policy. Remember me? he was saying to Worried of Chelmsford. I have the same gut feelings as you. I feel the same way when I read about motorway delays or child sex abuse in the Daily Mail. I'm one of you. So you can trust me to deal with this European stuff.

Try this. 'During the summer, when I was in Cornwall, a lady came up to speak to me. 'Mr Major', she said, 'please, please, don't let Britain's identity be lost in Europe.' She didn't tell me her name. But she spoke for the anxieties of millions. She spoke for this country. She spoke for me . . . I will never, come hell or high water, let our distinctive British identity be lost in a federal Europe.'

That passage sums up both the message and strategy of the speech. The answer to the Europhobes is John Major, an ordinary Englishman. And it has worked before. Ordinariness won the general election. Mr Major lost an opportunity yesterday to present his leadership in a new light - to go for the kind of dramatic confrontation with his enemies that Neil Kinnock indulged in with Militant in 1985 (and saw his poll ratings soar as a result). But on 9 October, he reminded party and country of 9 April.

The way that Conservative Central Office recalled that victory to the Tory faithful, just before Mr Major spoke, was very telling. Screens flashed up clips of the television pundits and Labour spokesmen on election night asserting, again and again, that the Tories had lost, that Mr Kinnock was on his way to Downing Street, and so on. Then stirring music welled up, as film showed gawky Mr Major, bashfully grinning as he arrived a few hours later at Smith Square. The representatives indulged in a high-volume mass gloat. And they had every right to do so.

Ordinariness had triumphed over the metropolitan clever- dicks. The plain man had confounded the sneerers. The underlying rhetoric is identical to that used by Dan Quayle when he attacks the Hollywood liberal establishment and warns his followers that when the media mock him, they are mocking the values of middle America. Last April, in Mr Major's book, was a triumph for the values of middle England, and he was not going to let anyone forget it.

Ultimately, this is one of his answers to the passion of the anti- Maastricht campaigners: the common sense of an ordinary chap is better than high emotion and overblown rhetoric. To the many Tories who felt a bit queasy after the theatricals of Lord Tebbit earlier in the week, Mr Major's rather dull delivery probably came as a relief. The stalwarts of the constituencies saw the face of yob-Thatcherism and did not like it; and that will help when the Maastricht Bill is going through.

The Government is not out of the woods. It is still stumbling through their darker recesses. The weakest part of Mr Major's speech concerned the economy and on that, at least, Tory representatives left for home no happier than when they arrived. Between now and Christmas, Mr Major, Douglas Hurd and Norman Lamont face intricate European negotiations, tense days in the House of Commons, and the slow, painful reconstruction of their economic policy.

But at Brighton, some of the intellectual ground has been cleared. Arguments have been clarified. The vigour and size of the Europhobe opposition has been tested and measured. Weak points in the Government have been identified. And Mr Major? After weeks of bloody defeats and months of vitriolic headlines, he has reminded his party of his qualities. That party, which showed itself more mature and thoughtful than it has seemed for many years, still likes him. It feels comfortable with him. This winter, I suspect, he will need the warming memory of their applause to help carry him through.