There is something about Tory conferences in Blackpool in any year that ends in a three. Exactly 40 years ago, the Macmillan government was convulsed by a leadership crisis. The Prime Minister was undergoing prostate surgery and was on the point of resignation. Rab Butler, Lord Hailsham and Lord Home were jockeying for position; and while the MPs, let alone party workers, were not entitled to vote, the process by which the new leader would "emerge" convulsed the conference. Ten years later, in 1973, Ted Heath faced the fury of putative Thatcherites, angry that a Tory government was busy imposing socialism by means of legislation to control prices and incomes.
Although the 1983 conference was supposed to be a celebration of the second general election victory, it was overshadowed by the resignation of Cecil Parkinson. As the transport whip in the Major government, I was responsible for smuggling Steve Norris, a junior transport minister, out of Blackpool after his "five mistresses" affair was splashed all over the tabloids on the first morning of the 1993 conference. This was also the year of the wretched "Back to Basics" debacle.
So it should not be regarded as exceptional that Blackpool 2003 is proving to be traumatic for Iain Duncan Smith. The difference from previous conferences, however, is that this week actually has the potential - leadership speculation notwithstanding - to lay solid policy foundations for an eventual Tory government.
There is a fundamental U-turn away from Thatcherism, with decentralisation as the replacement theme to privatisation. Much of the credit for this goes to David Davis who, as chairman of the Shadow Cabinet decentralisation committee, masterminded a coherent set of ideas to counter Labour's state centralism. The Tories have discovered an issue that fits with their natural philosophy. For years, under Labour and Tory governments, politicians and bureaucrats have been seizing ever more powers at the expense of ordinary citizens, professional and communities.
Mr Davis and his Central Office team have broken the problems of centralisation down into four "drivers" of the command state that corrode frontline services and local communities. These, he summarises as: targets imposed from Whitehall; centrally controlled funding; bureaucratic audit and inspection and rigid terms and conditions.
This approach has informed conference policy announcements on health and education. It was also responsible for Oliver Letwin's well-received speech yesterday calling for an end to Home Office control of police authorities. "I want to be the first Home Secretary who doesn't run any part of policing in Britain ... No more so called national policing plans; no more centrally imposed targets; no more Whitehall based units and initiatives and performance-monitoring." Perhaps the most dramatic policy announcement was the proposal to elect chief constables. Whether both parties' constant demands for ballots and referendums go down well with electorates is doubtful. But while there is growing voter apathy for electing politicians there might be a greater interest, at the ballot box, in rival candidates seeking the post of chief constable, on such issues as drug control, burglary and motoring offences.
However, some confusion still surrounds the fundamental conflict between tax cuts and improving public services. Every one of Margaret Thatcher's four conference speeches, while she was leader of the opposition, between 1975 and 1978, always included the unequivocal phrase "we will cut taxes" - followed by the victory speech at the 1979 conference which said "we have already cut taxes as we promised".
There is a continuing battle in sections of the party over this fundamental issue. The backbencher, Nick Gibb, has kicked the leadership hard against tax cuts, with an implicit call to arms for supporters of Michael Portillo. In his speech, yesterday, David Davis, however, put himself firmly at the head of the tax-cutters - should this become a defining issue in any future leadership battle with the Portillistas or with Michael Howard.
The other major "good news" story has been the progress made on candidate selection. IDS can point to the selection of the black candidate, Adam Afriyie, in Windsor and the openly gay, Ian Dale for the Liberal Democrat-held marginal of Norfolk North. Speaking to delegates from these constituencies I detected a genuine pride they had played a part, without direction from the centre, in making the Tory party look "more like the people we seek to represent".
There is also a buzz among Tory students who at "freshers' weeks" outstripped Labour and the Liberal Democrats in recruitment. It may be that the rebelliousness of youth now drives today's rebellious students into the Tory party.
This week is a week of two separate conferences. In the main hall the leadership is protecting IDS from trouble and getting a fair hearing for policy initiatives. But where any two Tory MPs are gathered together there is a palpable sense of impending doom. It will be in the coming weeks in Westminster when the fate of IDS will be sealed - unless, of course, the conference sits on its hands and refuses to applaud at the end of his speech on Thursday. In which case, it is game over for him on Friday.Reuse content