Leading article: Dull and boring? The parties have confounded all the cynics

Normally, party conferences are staged with a fearful and rigid discipline. But this year, they have mattered
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Most obviously, the Conservative conference changed the dynamics of its leadership contest. At the start of the week, David Davis was favourite by a considerable margin; by the end, he was struggling to limp over the starting line. Such was the theatrical excitement in Blackpool, the media focused above all on the performance of the main candidates. Clarke was the old bruiser, Cameron slick and confident, Davis lacklustre. But the contents mattered too. Davis highlighted the need to build more prisons, take a stronger line on immigration, scrap the Human Rights Act and renegotiate membership of the European Union. His message was a throwback to the Conservative conferences of the 1980s, a colossal misjudgement that revealed a narrow political vision and, significantly, failed to inspire his audience. Clarke, a performer so at ease with these big occasions, dared to remind the conference that a reputation for economic competence was a precondition for success. Cameron did not mention the economy in his speech, but his Blairite messages about the need for change may have heralded the arrival of a new political star.

It is, however, too early to make a real judgement on the success of the Tory conference. Yes, there are indications the party's activists have finally realised they are not the natural party of government. But excitement is not necessarily the same as political recovery - and much still depends on who is chosen as leader. If that figure recognises the need to modernise both the party's image and policies, then this week will be seen in retrospect as a significant moment. Otherwise, it will be just another example of a party in the midst of a terrible nervous breakdown, and this week would merely have served to keep the nation entertained with a ghoulish reality game show.

The Liberal Democrats had the worst conference of the three by some margin. Most specifically, Charles Kennedy showed no sign that he had given any thought about what he wanted to achieve. Instead, the split in the party between those on its economically liberal wing and the left-of-centre social democrats became more vivid. They look most vulnerable at the end of the conference season, a party that is drifting and directionless.

Labour had a solid week in Brighton, displaying a surface unity and staging some serious discussion on policies at well-attended fringe meetings. Finally, it is a party at ease with power. But underneath the surface, there were the familiar febrile tensions between the Blair and Brown camps. In his speech, Blair reasserted his authority as leader, while Brown revealed again his desperation to take over the top job. The conflicting aspirations of Prime Minister and Chancellor will remain the destabilising theme of Labour's third term.

The cynics say politics is dull and boring. If they had paid any attention to the past three weeks, they would have changed their minds.

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