|David Cameron speaking at Conservative Party Conference today|
So that’s it then. No last-minute defections, no significant protests, no nasty surprises – the Conservative Party Conference is officially over for another year, and David Cameron will surely be thankful that it has gone so smoothly. Just a few days ago all hell was breaking loose for the Tories following the shock defection of backbencher Mark Reckless to UKIP and the resignation of government minister Brooks Newmark in a tabloid sex sting, but despite these rocky beginnings this has turned out to be a Conference which has successfully steadied the Conservative ship in the run-up to next year’s general election.
Using their experience in government to present an image of credibility and competence, the Conservatives have highlighted the successes of the last four years and promised to build on these achievements if they are re-elected. That means more tax cuts, more welfare reform, more spending cuts and more deficit reduction. Not exactly measures to set the heart racing, but very much the right prescription for Britain.
Of course many of these proposals have already received a fair amount of criticism; Iain Duncan Smith’s plan to introduce pre-paid ‘benefit cards’ has attracted the ire of those who believe that it is only a matter of time before the Work and Pensions Secretary announces the return of the Dickensian workhouse, whilst Home Secretary Theresa May’s speech yesterday was widely condemned for its hints of authoritarianism. However, the Conservatives are more than used to such criticism and condemnation, and as such learned long ago to ignore the naysayers and plough on with what needs to be done; as Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in his speech today, quoting Margaret Thatcher, ‘there’s no shame in being in a minority of one, so long as you’re right and all the others are wrong.’
That isn’t to say that the Conservatives are deaf to the interests of the people, however, and this year’s Conference has been markedly more eurosceptic than in previous years. Several senior figures including Mr Hammond, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling and London Mayor Boris Johnson spoke out strongly against the EU status quo and the desire in Brussels for an ‘ever-closer union,’ whilst David Cameron today had harsh words for the European Court of Human Rights and promised to scrap the Human Rights Act if he is re-elected, some obvious red meat for the party’s eurosceptic right.
Reform of human rights law was not the only area which stood out in the Prime Minister’s speech, an address which was passionate, fiery and deeply personal. Cameron warned of the dangers of handing the economy back to the same Labour politicians who trashed it only a few years ago, and launched a furious rebuttal to those who claim he wishes to dismantle the NHS by referring to his own experiences of the health service during the tragically short life of his oldest child, Ivan.
The Prime Minister also used his speech to lay out some of what a Conservative majority government would do, with promises to ring-fence NHS spending, raise the tax-free allowance, widen the scope of the National Citizen Service scheme and build 100,000 new homes for first-time buyers. The promise of an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU was also reaffirmed as Cameron attempted to present the next election as a simple choice between him and Ed Miliband, with a vote for UKIP simply being a vote for Labour.
As the countdown to the general election begins and all parties ramp up the rhetoric, it will be the events of the coming months which decide who will occupy Downing Street for the next five years. Despite the polls being too close to call, party conference season ends with David Cameron and the Conservative Party very much on the front foot. Their Conference has been an undeniable success compared to Labour’s farcical Manchester convention, and if Cameron and his team are equally successful in compiling a solid manifesto and running an effective campaign then they should be able to win that coveted political trophy – five more years.