Listen] There are voices outside the cocoon

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The Independent Online
IS THE Conservative Party conference a serious political event? Will it change anything? With the pound and stock market still plummeting and the Government still short of a credible economic policy, do the thousands of representatives have anything to say to John Major? And if so, will they dare to say it?

Modern Tory conferences have had their moments of high drama and low farce - from the bombing of the Grand Hotel to the mayhem of the Cecil Parkinson resignation or the 1963 leadership battle. But only rarely have the voices of the party workers been heard so loudly that a policy has been changed or a reputation eroded.

For many Tories, particularly the important ones, Brighton will be the same as ever. Despite the IRA attack in 1984, conferences here have tended to convey a peculiar, complacent unreality all of their own. And the physical barrier between conference and town made necessary by 1984 has only added to that. Inside the cocoon, it will be possible to believe that the Government has merely suffered a 'setback' - that the Prime Minister is a brilliant strategist biding his time - and that brave leadership will jolly the markets up.

Yet if ever there was a year for reality to break through, this is it. The South is hurting, and so must be many of the faithful gathered here. According to the local paper, nearly 44 per cent of people in the central Brighton ward, where the conference is being held, are out of work. In a front-page appeal to Mr Major, its editor pleads for assisted area status for Brighton, Hove and Hastings which 'are now experiencing the sort of deprivation and social upheaval once found only in the land of closed coal pits and empty cotton mills'. This is going it a bit. But among the textbook definitions of political and economic failure, provoking Regency Brighton to beg for assisted area status must rank pretty high.

Mr Major has come to Brighton promising tough talking and plain speaking. In fact, there will be little personal risk involved. He will furrow his brow and talk of guts and hard choices. It will sound good and they will love him. As Adlai Stevenson once said of the Tories' American cousins: 'The Republicans stroke platitudes until they purr like epigrams.' Now all conference speechwriters are at it.

Could this conference achieve anything constructive? If 1,000 hands were jammed under the same number of buttocks shortly before Thursday lunchtime, as the chancellor ended his speech, it could ensure that Norman Lamont changed jobs. But it could not produce the economic policy we are told ministers are looking for. Nor could it calm the markets, or conclude the public expenditure round. It could punish, but it could not mend.

This conference could, however, enable the party to have a serious debate about the parlous state of the economy - about real Brighton not conference Brighton. This year, the Tories owe it to themselves and, more importantly, the rest of us, to do just that. Rarely has a new government been so lacking in direction, sense of purpose and belief in itself. What a rare opportunity for the much-mocked Tory faithful to make themselves count]

Judging by amendments accepted for the economic and European debates, there are strong feelings about whether Britain should ever re-enter the ERM, and about a Maastricht referendum. But the party ought to be debating other economic and social dilemmas, too.

Away from Brighton, as the conference opened, a key Cabinet committee meeting on public spending was taking place. That is not an abstract inter-departmental conflict (as it is often portrayed). It may determine whether Britain can afford to go to war in some future, unknown situation, whether or not a heart-attack victim standing by a bus stop will die or live and whether old Mrs X will spend her final years in barely tolerable conditions, or in intolerable ones. Behind the numbers game being played out in Whitehall lie millions of human consequences.

The choices are not easy ones, nor ones conference managers enjoy hearing discussed. Here are two rules about such spending rounds. First, there is always pressure for jam today. Always, good governments have to invest in jam tomorrow instead - higher education spending will only bear fruit years after John Patten's tenure as Secretary of State for Education has been forgotten. Second, the better- organised and richer lobbies do less badly from spending rounds than people who cannot organise and who do not vote for the government in power. Again, a good government will try to over-compensate and ensure that most suffering is borne by those who can bear it most easily. If deep social security cuts are being talked about, should not tax increases be talked about as well? These are real, argue-aboutable choices facing ministers now, and there is no reason why they should not be argued about this week.

There are signs, from conversations in Brighton's hotel bars, and in the printed agendas, that the Conservative conference is beginning to show signs of life. It is possible, no more, that the recession, and the Government's low status have given ordinary Tories a greater sense that their views matter as much as their applause. The Conservatives are in deep political and philosophical trouble. They are not highly regarded in the country, outside the conference cocoon. This is their chance to prove they can hear, and understand, and are thinking.