'This week, the Tories finally accepted that they have been regarded as the 'nasty' party by the voters'
"Dull, boring and flat" was my reply to the Conservative Party Chairman, David Davis, in reply to his question to me on how I thought his party's conference had gone. A cheery smile spread across his face as he muttered "Oh really", giving me the clear impression that his mission had been successfully accomplished.
This has been the first gaffe-free Tory conference in living memory. Last year, the Tories were in disarray at the end of their week by the seaside because of the rows over drugs. The year before, Baroness Thatcher hijacked the proceedings with her alternative sideshow featuring General Pinochet. I cannot remember the last time a conference ended with the Tories in a better state than before it began. On this occasion they have emerged more united than Iain Duncan Smith could have imagined.
Admittedly, events in a blustery Blackpool have hardly grabbed the headlines, but it would be wrong to say that the conference was a total irrelevance. The Tory party has always prided itself on being patriotic, and it has lost its nervous inhibitions about supporting the Labour Government during a national crisis. Mr Duncan Smith has genuinely excelled himself in giving Mr Blair his full-hearted support. This makes it impossible for the Millbank machine to persist with its original intention of caricaturing the Tory leader as an extremist.
The temporary truce between the two main parties has also had an effect on the Tories' own civil war and resulted in a similar suspension of hostilities. The stream of vitriol that passed from the lips of some aggressive opponents of Mr Duncan Smith during the leadership campaign has been staunched. Former supporters of Michael Portillo and Kenneth Clarke were watching their words in the bars at Blackpool, and Mr Duncan Smith was helped by a thin attendance of party elders and prominent Portillistas and Clarkeites.
The principal achievement, this week, has been the extrication of the party from several of the hooks upon which it has been impaled for years. Labour has not been the only party to smuggle out difficult domestic announcements while no one was looking. Mr Duncan Smith has been up to the same tricks – but with more success. He has sorted out the MPs who are members of the Monday Club and laid to rest the ghost of Margaret Thatcher, and even hinted at the possibility that gays, blacks, Asians and single mothers should be regarded as full members of the human race.
Most significant of all is the break by Michael Howard, the Shadow Chancellor, with previous Tory economic policies – paving the way for the Tories to be taken seriously in their new-found claim to stand for improved public services. Mr Howard's was a remarkable performance for one who used to have "something of the night about him". His two-year sabbatical on the backbenches has transformed him into a refreshing ray of sunshine. He even managed a light touch of humour where party conference jokes have been, inevitably, in short supply this season: "Iain's laid much stress on the environment. He believes in recycling. So here I am."
Mr Howard foreshadowed the prospect of higher taxes under Gordon Brown – because of the possibility of a world slowdown and the Chancellor's own public spending plans. What he did not foreshadow was the prospect of reductions in taxation under the Tories. This begs the question as to what the centrepiece of Tory economic policy will be. But it does allow the Tories' claims to be "passionate" about health, transport and education to be taken more seriously.
No details of policies on public services will be announced for many months, but sources close to the new leader promise to bore journalists on the subject until they and the public have got the message that these, not Europe, will be their priorities. Mr Duncan Smith stressed the public services in his speech. And, ironically, it is Europe to which the Tories are looking for inspiration.
In most European countries, the mix of state funding and private insurance provides a pragmatic approach to ensuring fast and preventive treatment. Mr Duncan Smith believes that Labour will fail in escaping from the union and producer-dominated traditions of the NHS – in spite of Mr Blair's efforts.
This week, the Tories finally accepted that they have been regarded as the "nasty" party by the voters. Until this year, they gave the impression that it was the voters who had got it wrong in 1997 and would correct their mistake this year. Now the whole party finally accepts that they have to change direction – even if there are contradictory pulls at work.
John Bercow, the new Shadow Chief Secretary, was given licence by Mr Duncan Smith to speak at a gay fringe meeting where he said that before the last election the Tories were justifiably denounced as "shrill, homophobic and eerily detached from the reality of life". And Archie Norman and Francis Maude want to continue to keep alight the Portillo flame of greater inclusiveness with their new "think-tank with attitude". It threatened to be divisive, but the shrewd decision to make Mr Duncan Smith its president should defuse that.
But Mr Duncan Smith still has to find his symbolic "Clause Four" that will demonstrate to the voter that his party has broken with its recent past, in the way Tony Blair did so dramatically in his first party conference as opposition leader in 1994. His speech yesterday fell short of the really big new idea. He is no orator. Rather like a new blushing bride – he appeared slightly nervous – it was something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.
The old paragraphs of William Hague's "save the pound" routines were condensed into a single sentence. The new lines on ethnic minorities and people of different lifestyles – "I will be intolerant of anyone who is intolerant of others" – were a welcome recognition that Mr Duncan Smith has grasped the need for inclusiveness. The appeals to the spirit of volunteerism and charity work had echoes of ideas borrowed from John Major. But it was a "true blue" speech that won the hearts of his audience.
Neither this conference's debates nor Mr Duncan Smith's speech will stick in the memory for long. But at least the tone of the Tory party seems to have changed for the better. That will be remembered.Reuse content