So much more than showbiz: Once dismissed as irrelevant, the Tory party conference can still make and break both policy and the leadership, says Richard Kelly

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The Independent Online
FOR most of this century, the Conservative conference has had a bad press. From Lawrence Lowell in 1908 ('a transparent sham'), to the Economist in 1985 ('less a conference than a festival of worship'), it has been derided by academics and journalists alike. Tory leaders have seemed no less dismissive. Until 1965, they rarely attended until the final day; Balfour claimed to prefer the political advice of his valet.

Unlike Labour's conference, it had no official role in policy making, was never responsible for the party's organisation, was never a court of appeal for disciplined members and never played host to a leadership contest. Little wonder, perhaps, that the conference seemed free of the tension and theatricality marking so many gatherings of the Labour Party. As Christopher Hollis wrote for the Spectator in 1960, 'a Tory conference is intended to be, and is, the dullest thing that ever happened'.

For those on the platform at Bournemouth this week, that sort of conference is likely to be only a fond memory. Just as the Labour Party conference has come to ape the stereotype of the Tory conference (tame, bland, united), the Tories are starting to behave in a manner associated with Labour (tense, heated, divided).

Yet all this overlooks the critical role the conference has played during several periods of the party's history. Austen Chamberlain believed he could not remain leader if the 1921 conference rejected his Irish policy (as it threatened). His resignation a year later owed much to reports - via Tory MPs at the Carlton Club - that the impending party conference would be stormy.

Baldwin's judgement was persistently questioned by conference after 1924, while the conference of 1926 forced changes in the trade union laws which the leader much regretted. The battles over India, between 'pragmatic' Tory ministers and imperialist diehards, were fought out at the conferences of the Thirties, which also featured quarrels with the leadership over rearmament. Having incited much of that dissent, Churchill was at the receiving end in 1946 when he was outmanoeuvred on industrial policy.

Ten years later, Eden's fateful Suez policy was encouraged by the conference's hawkish mood, while the first Commonwealth Immigration Act was shaped partly by the quasi-

racist clamour of conference in the early Sixties. When that clamour resurfaced after Enoch Powell's speech in 1968, the conference became a continual test of Heath's capacity to unite and lead the party.

Finally, it is worth recalling Balfour's record as leader: after presiding over a deep split in 1905, and three subsequent election defeats, he was forced to quit just before the conference of 1911 - one which threatened to assault both his record on tariff reform and his leadership in general. Though Balfour may have wished otherwise, it is the backing of party activists - not valets - that a leader needs to survive.

This 'revisionist' view that the Tory conference has been far more influential than it is given credit for, has been bolstered in recent years. It was the leadership of Margaret Thatcher that did most to alter the conduct of the conference, even though she inspired its most servile tendencies. Oddly for a Tory leader, she felt more in touch with the rank and file than with most of her parliamentary colleagues. That preference was confirmed by her clashes with 'wet' Cabinet colleagues in the early Eighties.

During those years, she came to regard the conference not as an inconvenience, but as a chance to show doubting colleagues the extent of her support from the party. When she felt under siege, particularly from what she saw as 'the establishment', she could rely on conference to boost her self-belief and renew her thirst for conflict. It played no small part in her eventual mastery of the party.

This was not lost on ordinary conference- goers. Sensing a growing culture of dissent inside the party, they became more prepared to assert their own views from the rostrum and challenge those of ministers. They were emboldened further by their run of electoral triumphs after 1979 and the transparent weakness of their opponents. The scale of victory in both 1983 and 1987 made dissent seem a luxury that could be afforded.

Yet of even greater encouragement were certain social and economic changes which, again, were closely linked to the nature of the leadership. The decline of the old working class, the contraction of trade unions, the spread of home ownership and the embourgeoisement of society all convinced Tory activists that they were the new 'voice of the people', uniquely attuned to the new average voter.

As a result, they were even more inclined to give ministers the 'benefit' of their advice, which ministers (under the glare of Mrs Thatcher) found increasingly difficult to resist. The 1987 conference forced a crucial revision to the poll tax (ensuring its introduction was not phased, as Nicholas Ridley had planned), while the conference of 1989 paved the way for official Conservative candidates in Northern Ireland - an 'integrationist' measure plainly at odds with the secretary of state's devolutionary designs.

Thatcherism's effect upon the conference has outlasted Thatcher's leadership of the party. Indeed, she herself has tried to exploit it through her mischievously speechless appearances since 1990. Out of dislike for some of her successor's policies, it has been argued, she has sought to provoke more widespread opposition from party members assembled at conference.

In this respect, she has been abetted by a less reticent Lord Tebbit, who electrified the 1992 conference with an attack upon Maastricht; although it failed to alter government policy, Tebbit helped to kill off any idea that modern Tory conferences were lifeless or unfailingly stage-managed.

Last year's conference was less turbulent, but much more instrumental in terms of government strategy. After a bruising year in office, John Major was aware that conference was being billed as a make-or-break affair for his leadership. The activists wanted punchy policies and rousing rhetoric. In response, he used his keynote speech to unfurl the 'back to basics' project. The problems that objective has since run into are a reminder that conference's influence is not without its pitfalls.

Clearly, the Tory conference has established itself as a landmark for leaders intent upon survival. It may also be thought amusing, but it is a joke those on the platform at Bournemouth are unlikely to appreciate.

The author teaches politics at Manchester Grammar School. He wrote 'Conservative Party Conferences' (1989) and is a contributor to 'Conservative Century: The Conservative Party Since 1900', to be launched by Oxford University Press at this week's Tory conference.

(Photograph omitted)