Ten point review of the 2010 Conservative Party Conference
By Tim Montgomerie
(1) The party of the working poor: In a move as significant as Margaret Thatcher's decision to sell council homes to their tenants, Iain Duncan Smith announced a seven year programme that will simplify the benefits system and ensure that every person who takes work is better off. Sat alongside the Coalition's commitment to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000* it is a proud moment for our party. While Gordon Brown extended dependence up the income scale - sometimes it seemed for nakedly political purposes - David Cameron is leading a government that is helping people to be more independent of the state. As he said in his speech yesterday: "Let us support the real routes out of poverty: a strong family; a good education; a job."
(2) The week that universality ended: The decision to stop higher rate taxpayers receiving child benefit is unlikely to be the last universal benefit that George Osborne will touch. The deficit, said IDS, made it "bonkers" for people earning £50,000 to be receiving lots of benefits. Ed Miliband has vowed to defend universal benefits and sees such a posture as a way of winning support throughout middle Britain.
(3) The Telegraph and Mail savaged Osborne over child benefit: Two of Britain's most important centre right newspapers savaged the party this week. In a leader striking for its language The Telegraph described George Osborne's child benefit change as "crude and unfair". Osborne and Cameron, thundered the newspaper, had revived the idea "that they were privileged young men for whom money had never been a concern and were, therefore, unable to relate to the day-to-day concerns of the voters." The Mail splashed with the story two days in a row, complaining at the impact on stay-at-home mums. Patrick O'Flynn of The Express described the intensity of opposition to the change among target voters as "deadly".
(4) What happened to the return to Cabinet government? At a fringe meeting on Monday Michael Gove said coalition government had improved decision-making. The extra layers of decision-making meant decisions were improved. Unfortunately the extra layers appear to have been bypassed during the child benefit decision. We already know that the Cabinet has not discussed the overall shape of the public spending settlements, leaving the 'real Cabinet' to decide how much goes to defence and how much to education and so on. If Cameron was a little more collegiate we'd avoid car crash TV interviews of the kind suffered by Theresa May on Tuesday's Newsnight. Decisions might also be improved and better briefings prepared so that Tory MPs are immediately given the facts on announcements. We most hope the operation will be improved by the time of the comprehensive spending settlement.
(5) Cameron has taken charge of defence spending: Following the leak of Liam Fox's explosive letter, Cameron has decided that tensions between the Treasury and Liam Fox required his intervention. The PM began Conference by making pro-defence noises in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph. The MoD is now expected to get a much better settlement and Fox will get much more of what he wants. Relations between Downing Street and the Defence Secretary have, nonetheless, been damaged by the whole process.
(6) A good week for Gove; a bad week for Warsi: The most exciting moments on the main stage were the presentations on education before Michael Gove spoke. Frontline teachers and people from the Left mounted the stage to salute Coalition education plans - powerfully arguing that they will help the poor in radical ways. [WATCH]. It wasn't a great week for Sayeeda Warsi. She gave a good speech on Sunday but performed worryingly badly in two set piece interviews, with Jon Sopel for the Politics Show and on Andrew Neil's Daily Politics yesterday.
(7) The grassroots are learning to love David Cameron... For the first time in more than fifty ConHome surveys David Cameron is more popular than William Hague - and largely because more and more members are satisfied with the performance of the PM rather than disappointed with the Foreign Secretary. Members have their grumbles. They think the party should have won the election outright. They are unhappy at some concessions to the Liberal Democrats. Overall, however, they are increasingly supportive of the Coalition and, in particular, its focus on fixing Britain's public finances. [Details].
(8) ...But the Tory grassroots are dying: I published the numbers last night. Tory membership is in freefall. Approximately 80,000 members have left the party - by choice or by death - in the five years since David Cameron became party leader. The future of the voluntary party will be a big project for ConservativeHome in the months ahead.
(9) Tory Conference has become a political trade fair: There may have been 13,000 people at this year's Conference but the number of grassroots members seemed smaller than ever. 2,200 of the attendees were media. I suspect thousands more were lobbyists, NGOs and exhibitors. The move to Birmingham and Manchester (albeit great venues) has priced ordinary members out of Conference. Most members I spoke to were spending at least £500 for their Conference experience. Those members that do now come have a professional interest in the party - either as Westminster candidates or via local government. The fringe has become much duller. The think tanks, for example, have taken the money of corporate giants and run meetings dedicated to narrow legislative issues rather than the big ideological debates. As Jonathan Isaby has written, the Freedom Zone is now the real fringe. Simon Richards of the Freedom Association launched the Zone three years ago and it is now financially solid enough to be going into a fourth year. ConHome held one meeting at the Zone - dedicated to an analysis of the General Election campaign. The BBC reviewed it here.
(10) A good Conference season for the Conservatives: Cameron's speech may have been forgettable but the three week Conference season was, overall, good for the Conservative Party. The Liberal Democrats appear committed to the Coalition. David Miliband has left frontline Labour politics, leaving the union's brother in charge. And, ahead of the crunchiest of spending rounds, Cameron has the confidence and affection of his party.
* A Liberal Democrat contribution to the Coalition Agreement but advocated by Lord Forsyth in his 2006 Tax Commission and supported by 80% of Tory members.