Michael Brown: Jangled nerves replace high spirits

The view from Brighton: The Tory party needs the votes of the ugly people in the chip shops of Cleethorpes as well as the smart cappuccino cafés of the Notting Hill set
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The Independent Online

It was a bedraggled Tory Party that huddled together yesterday at the seaside. Their damp spirits had more to do with the shrinking poll lead than the rain-lashed seafront promenade.

At their party conference in Manchester last autumn the party chairman, Eric Pickles, spent most of his time trying to dampen high spirits, cautioning against complacency and banning the consumption of champagne. This weekend Mr Pickles had no need to calm any triumphalist over-exuberance.

Rather than champagne, stiff brandies all round were more appropriate for the jangled nerves of the party faithful in the wake of the latest YouGov poll, which showed the Conservatives with only a slender lead of 2 per cent.

It would be wrong to say that the leadership, the activists or even the candidates sweating it out in marginal seats are in a state of panic or depression. But they are certainly mystified and frustrated that yet more stories about the disagreeable side of Gordon Brown's character seem to coincide with Labour's increasing popularity.

With little new in the way of policy detail, this is the leadership's opportunity to refine its message into six bullet points. Heading these up in a new leaflet is the refrain: "We can't go on like this."

There were wry asides that this referred to Mr Cameron's current strategy, rather than it signifying that the country can't carry on with Labour.

So long as Mr Cameron looks likely to win, party workers are prepared to allow the leadership considerable latitude in their strategy and policy. They are even prepared to tolerate the barely concealed contempt that many Cameroons have for the wider membership, who secretly yearn for a return to what Mr Cameron described in his weekend webcast as "the comfort zone banging out the old Tory tunes".

I saw one lapel badge saying "Proud to be a dinosaur", but the modern Tory party was visible. One Cameroon claimed: "We are the beautiful party for beautiful people." Sadly, the Tory party needs the votes of the ugly people in the chip shops of Cleethorpes (my old seat) as well as the smart cappuccino cafés of the Notting Hill set.

By the end, Mr Cameron had roused the faithful with his usual off-the-cuff eloquence. The familiar themes of sunny optimism that defines his personal character mingled with warnings of the dire perils ahead if Labour is returned. But the cloudy skies as he left Brighton suggest that this 13-year Tory winter is not over yet.