Andrew Grice: Cameron must fill holes left by a policy-free conference

The Tories will be relieved that, so far, there is no sign that the past three weeks will interrupt Cameron's glide towards Downing Street.

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Who were the winners and losers from the last party conference season before the general election? The Conservatives won the battle to secure the most favourable media coverage. They will be relieved this weekend that, so far, there is no sign that the past three weeks will interrupt David Cameron's glide towards Downing Street.

I say "so far" because, by deciding to answer the criticism that they were policy-lite, the Tories have taken a big risk. They deserve credit for doing so. Mr Cameron and George Osborne agonised long and hard about when to unveil some of the spending cuts needed to tackle Britain's "debt crisis".

The two men who drive the Tory project keep any differences between them very quiet, rightly determined to avoid the debilitating battles like those between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Aides claim that the Tory leader and shadow Chancellor were equally keen to unveil some measures now, but Mr Osborne was probably the first to reach that conclusion.

A wage freeze for 4 million public sector workers, a rise in the state pension age and a cut in tax credits for the middle classes give Labour precious ammunition. The "Tory cuts" threat can be magnified on the doorsteps ("The Tories say the wage freeze is only for one year, but if they get into power...").

Some senior Tories are nervous. "We didn't need to say anything at all," one told me. Others wanted to wait until next month's pre-Budget report maps out Labour's cuts, so that the Tories could trump them. Tory leaders insist that there is nothing in their prospectus that Treasury officials would not put in Alistair Darling's "cuts options" file.

I suspect the pay freeze was road-tested with voters in advance. I'm told there are relatively few public sector employees among swing voters in the marginal seats that will decide the election, and they are outweighed by private sector workers who feel it is the public sector's turn to share the pain.

In one sense, Mr Brown was a winner from the conference season. He propped up his own position within the Labour Party. More plots to oust him will be hatched when MPs return to Westminster from their summer recess on Monday. But the public display of total loyalty to Mr Brown in Brighton by Lord Mandelson (who gets a winner's award for his electrifying speech) makes a cabinet putsch less likely.

The Prime Minister's conference speech worked well enough on the day but looks less impressive now that Mr Cameron has had the last word. Mr Brown's reluctance to include any spending cuts left his speech sounding like a traditional list of pre-election goodies, and therefore seems out of kilter with the times.

If he is still stuck in his old tramline of "Labour investment versus Tory cuts", the Tories will continue to set the agenda. It would reinforce their "change" message, as they present Mr Cameron as offering a new politics, as well as their claims to offer honesty about the scale of the economic crisis and the remedies needed.

Yet the Tories' honesty has its limits. Senior figures know that part of the black hole in the public finances will have to be filled by tax rises but they look the other way when you ask them whether they are going to admit it before the election.

On Europe, Mr Cameron appears dishonest. His aides were frustrated that the issue reared its head after the Irish Yes vote for the Treaty of Lisbon, on the eve of the Tory conference. Europe was not on their "media grid". If they win the election, they will find themselves juggling many balls that are not on their grid.

After a brief wobble, the Tories displayed their hunger for power by remaining disciplined on Europe, but the underlying tensions will surface if Mr Cameron wins office. I predict that hardline Eurosceptics will be disappointed if the treaty has already been ratified. Mr Cameron says he would "not let matters rest" but when I asked one Cameroon what that meant, he smiled: "We WILL let matters rest!". Trouble ahead.

Mr Osborne, called the weakest link by Labour as it struggles to land punches on Mr Cameron, was a winner. He delivered the most significant speech of the conference season. It should help to allay City doubts that he's a boy in a man's job, yet his "we're all in this together" slogan was undermined by retaining as policy a cut in inheritance tax for the very rich.

Mr Cameron's effective address makes him a winner too but raises many questions. Blaming Britain's problems on "big government" may provide some cover for cuts but doesn't really work in the current climate. Who prevented the banks from going bust and millions of people losing their savings? Whose spending around the world will stop recession turning into depression? How can poverty be tackled without government intervention?

While the Liberal Democrats are well placed to win one in four votes come the election, they are ignored by most media and so were happy that their Bournemouth conference got noticed at all. But the halo of Vince Cable slipped. A policy that looked good on day one – a tax on people whose homes are worth more than £1m – fell apart when the media asked some basic questions and got the impression the policy was drawn up on the back of a matchbox. It may cost the party votes, especially in London and the South. The Tories love it.

In terms of the overall mood at the conferences, Labour rediscovered its tribal instincts but it could not puncture the fin de siecle atmosphere. The Tories, while desperate to avoid the dangerous cocktail of champagne and complacency, looked like a party on the brink of power.

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