David Cameron must point the way to the sunlit uplands today
Some Conservative conferences are thrown off course by events at a fringe meeting, by a chance remark at a rally or in a bar, by scandal and coming resignation (remember the 1983 conference and the Cecil Parkinson affair), or by events from outside - like that of two years ago which was hurtled off course by the banking crisis. Others are rocked by a plan or speech that comes from the leadership itself. This has been one of them.
The turmoil over the Government's child benefit plans has consumed two of the conference's four days to date. This morning's papers report the carnage - an apology from the Prime Minister, a letter from George Osborne, claims that key Cabinet members weren't consulted, off-stage noises from David Davis and other MPs, continuing editorial anger and critical story angles from the media left and the right, and suggestions of a tax cut for married couples to compensate (which would consume much of the savings gained from the child benefit move in the first place).
It's evident that George Osborne and David Cameron cooked up the plan between them. They'll take some comfort from today's Sun poll, which at first glance suggests that voters don't give a fig for what the media think, and don't care for universal welfareism either: 83 per cent of those polled by YouGov support scrapping child benefit for those on higher incomes. However, the poll also shows that opinion on the plan's main anomaly - that two-earner households below the threshold gain disproportionately from it - is much more evenly divided.
What's certain is that the Party leadership's not out of the woods on the matter, that the row's revived accusations of closed decision-making by a leadership magic circle, that it's a foretaste of the furore that will hit the Government after this month's spending review, and that the polls will worsen over the autumn. Much of this is how it must be: salvaging the nation's finances - a task no less imperative now than during the early 1980s - was always going to be arduous, tough and bloody.
Toil and sweat this week and in the future, then, plus some tears, though (hopefully) no blood. The intended conference message to date has been formal, consensual, even bland - "Together in the National Interest". As I wrote on Sunday, I rather like its patriotic overtones. It's not inappropriate for the Party to deck out its symbol in the Union Flag, since we are, after all, a patriotic party. And voters seem to like the idea of two parties working together in Coalition for the common good.
But there's a risk in all this that the Government will come to be seen not so much as Stanley Baldwin but as Victor Meldrew, dispensing not the early Cameron change, optimism and hope but inertia, pessimism...even despair. Ed Miliband moved to exploit this possibility last week. David Cameron knows well this morning that after the week's sweat and toil - not to mention the child benefit turmoil - he has to try to persuade voters today that the hard journey will have a happy end, and point the way towards the sunlit uplands.
As John Lennon once crooned (dire song: but the words serve a purpose), "it isn't hard to do". Imagine a country in which the deficit's been eliminated, the economy's recovering, living standards are rising, the immigration cap is in place, the universal credit's coming in, free schools are steadily opening, elected police chiefs are in place, GPs are fundholders, our aid budget's helping more people and giving value for money, 28 days imprisonment without charge has gone, national and local spending state is on-line for inspection and local referendums are happening.
Sure, Britain won't be perfect in 2015 (if the Coalition lasts that long). On - in particular - lower income tax rates and the recovery of powers from the EU, the Coalition Agreement is deeply disappointing. But the prospect sketched out above would be an immeasurable improvement on what we have now. And it can be turned from imagination to reality if the Government holds its nerve, and its leadership plans its strategy and tactics more effectively than it has this week over child benefit. Let's hope that David Cameron delivers today an agenda for growth and reform.