It will, we are confidently assured, be a "make-or-break" annual seaside conference speech for the leader of the Conservative Party. It always is. I would be surprised if anyone who follows these matters could recall a Tory leader about whom this was not said, year after monotonous year. Only the identity of the resort changes, although the Conservatives now seem unable to vary even in that detail, returning again and again – inexplicably – to Blackpool.
This perennial prediction, that only a speech of supernatural skill will save whoever happens to be leading the party from immediate extinction, is not merely a feature of the Conservative Party's conference since its MPs dumped Margaret Thatcher. Those with longer memories will recall that during the late 1960s it was said every year ahead of Ted Heath's annual conference speech.
The pattern was already wearyingly familiar: the press would warn that the leader was seen as insufficiently electable even by his own party members. Then he would make a speech which was rapturously received by the self-same party faithful, after which the media would report that he had triumphed against adversity and made his leadership safe for another year.
It is, in fact, almost impossible for any party leader to make a conference speech which does not bring the members in the hall to a state of apparent ecstasy. Last week Gordon Brown demonstrated just how difficult it would be: tumultuous applause greeted a speech which was an outright provocation, being pitched primarily not to those present but to Conservative supporters who might accidentally have tuned in.
The receptions given to party leaders' speeches are similar to what tends to happen when a once-great pianist gives a recital. He might hit any number of wrong notes – he might even miss out entire phrases – but the audience will still applaud wildly. They so want him to do well that they will convince themselves that he has, despite all evidence to the contrary.
The most extraordinary example of this tendency was the immediate reaction to Iain Duncan Smith's speech to the 2003 Conservative Party Conference in, yes, Blackpool. It was dreadful. Yet it received, during its 3,500 words, no fewer than 17 standing ovations. It's true that time-honoured tricks were played by Conservative Party officials in the hall. Placed at strategically-chosen spots in the Winter Gardens, they would stand up at pre-arranged moments and applaud wildly, their hands clapping above their heads as if at a pop concert.
Afterwards Michael Howard, referring to the rumours of plans to dump Mr Duncan Smith, told the BBC's Daily Politics show that his leader's speech would "put all that to an end". Mr Oliver Letwin declared: "It was an absolutely barnstorming performance. He took the hall and reasserted his authority and he looked like a prime minister." Two weeks later the Conservative Parliamentary Party dumped Iain Duncan Smith – and Michael Howard effortlessly took over. The point is that this had not been a make-or-break speech: Mr Duncan-Smith's leadership was already broken, even before he stood up to declare, excruciatingly, that "the quiet man is here to stay".
There is a rare circumstance in which a conference speech can decide the leadership of the party – and that is when the leadership itself is vacant. This was the case during the Conservative Party conference of 2005, in – oh, not you again – Blackpool. It took place in the middle of the campaign for the party's leadership. History will have it that David Cameron delivered a speech of stunning virtuosity, which swung the undecideds behind him. In fact David Cameron's soufflé of an address revealed little more than that he has an extremely personable manner and that he doesn't require notes or autocue.
What really happened was that David Davis, the front runner, gabbled his own speech in such a perfunctory fashion that he lost the attention even of his own supporters – and the media present turned on him with the sort of delight that bookies must feel when they think the race favourite is about to fall at the last fence.
No such competitive drama attends this year's Conservative Conference. It does, however, take place in the shadow of Mr Gordon Brown's agonising over whether or not to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament and precipitate a general election. In this sense the drama is far removed from Blackpool, or indeed from public view at all: it is all taking place inside Mr Brown's head. Only one thing is preventing the Prime Minister from making the trip to Buckingham Palace – fear: fear that his recent impressive lead in recent public opinion polls will evaporate in the special circumstances of a general election campaign only two years into a Parliament.
David Cameron, for his part, is frightened that Gordon Brown will not be frightened. While the Conservative leader has no choice but to pretend that he welcomes an early general election, his party is not yet in a fit state to win such a gruelling campaign – and he must surely know it.
The apparently confident pledges to reduce stamp duty and inheritance tax made yesterday by George Osborne are actually a sign of this barely suppressed panic. These are the sort of plump juicy rabbits which parties would normally wish to pull out of the hat at the start of a general election campaign, to coincide with the launch of their manifesto. In this case, however, the Conservatives desperately want to push up their opinion poll ratings right now, so as to deter Gordon Brown from pressing the red starter button.
This is not meant as a criticism of Mr Osborne's specific proposals outlined yesterday. This column has already observed that it was strange for Mr Osborne to have declared that, as Chancellor, he would not vary from the overall balance between taxation and spending chosen by Labour. It seems to me essential for their own sakes – quite apart from everybody else's – that the Conservatives do their utmost to re-establish a reputation as the party of lower taxation.
Enthusiastic talk of "Green" taxes – a la Zac Goldsmith – may appear enlightened at all the best dinner parties, but however persuasively such advocacy is packaged it will sound to most people as just another excuse on the part of politicians to take more of their earnings. The newspapers of the centre-left will applaud a commitment to such taxes – and now complain that Mr Cameron is "moving to the Right"; the truth, however, is that these newspapers will never endorse the Conservatives at a general election – so Mr Cameron must face up to losing their support sooner or later.
Besides, his public awaits him.Reuse content