This time last year, most Conservatives, if informed that David Cameron would be in Downing Street by the next Tory conference, would probably have envisaged a triumphal victory rally in Birmingham over the coming days.
But the mood among Conservative MPs and activists, who gather in the ICC from tomorrow, will be rather more subdued.
There is unlikely to be much, if any, triumphalism. And the reason is that the Conservatives, in defiance of expectations, did not win a majority of seats in May's general election. In order to enter Downing Street, the party formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. This was not how 13 painful years of opposition were supposed to end. Worse, some of the policies most popular with the Tory grass roots – raising the inheritance tax threshold, introducing a marriage tax break and repatriating powers from Europe – have been dropped.
Despite the disappointment, party discipline is unlikely to fray in Birmingham. A key Tory policy survived the coalition negotiations: drastic cuts to public spending on an accelerated timetable. There is enough red meat in the Coalition's fiscal plans to keep most Conservatives moderately contented.
Indeed, this is likely to be the least interesting of the three main party conferences. The Liberal Democrat leadership had the difficult task of persuading the party's activists that they did the right thing in forming a coalition with the Tories. A close leadership election (and its emotionally fraught aftermath) dominated Labour's conference in Manchester. By comparison with the job that faced Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, Mr Cameron's big speech next Wednesday will be a walk in the park.
Yet there will be some awkward and interesting moments in store nevertheless. The irony is that the biggest clashes in the Coalition have not been between Liberal Democrats and Tories, but between Tories and Tories. The hot battle between the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, and the Chancellor over funding welfare reform appears to have cooled of late. But it could quite easily flare up again in Birmingham, perhaps if Mr Duncan Smith makes a subtle land grab in his speech. Many activists will be sympathetic to the arguments of the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, revealed in a leaked letter this week, that the spending cuts are likely to squeeze the Armed Forces too severely. Dr Fox's conference speech will be closely watched too. Meanwhile, the thinking of the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, on sentencing is unlikely to find a sympathetic audience with an audience more comfortable with draconian pledges than thoughtful suggestions of liberal reform.
But for the Conservatives, the crucial period of this Parliament lies in the future. Later this month, the Coalition will unveil its Comprehensive Spending Review, which will specify which areas of government activity are to be dropped as the Treasury enforces a fiscal squeeze tougher than anything attempted by Margaret Thatcher. Even those Tories who cheer on the Coalition's hardline fiscal plans next week will not like some of the consequences, particularly if universal benefits such as child benefit and winter fuel allowance are hacked back. It would be an exaggeration to argue that this conference will be as good as it gets for Mr Cameron. But it might well prove to be a moment of calm before a bitter storm.Reuse content