By Matthew Barrett
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Read today's political news and you get a clear sense that Liberal Democrats are dominating the political agenda. That is because their spring conference is being held this weekend. Although not entirely positive for them, the free publicity has allowed Lib Dems the chance to own the debate about taxation for the last few days.
For the first time since many Tories have been involved in politics, there was no Spring conference this year. Where has it gone? Paul Goodman reported in November last year that Spring Forum would be greatly reduced in size, and limited to, according to a CCHQ press release at the time "a one day event [that] will be focused on the issues concerning the Voluntary Party. The agenda will be designed to promote a conversation amongst senior volunteers, senior politicians and the professional party". That Spring meeting took place last Saturday. At the meeting, David Cameron gave a speech outlining his definition of a fairer Britain. Boris also launched his nine-point plan for London.
Neither event got the publicity they were due. The Independent covered David Cameron's speech, and called the event simply a "meeting of activists". This scaled-down format didn't allow the Conservatives to dominate the weekend, or even the day. In a crucial election year for Boris in London, and local councils across the country, a Spring Forum would have achieved much better coverage in the media, and sent activists home with a determined spirit for the coming months. Instead, one of only two events a year when activists from across the country come together has simply been axed.
By the end of last week it was obvious that the Tory campaign was in trouble. Although the party was still in a strong position it was losing support. Throughout last week Team Cameron prepared a relaunch of the campaign at the Brighton Spring Forum. 'The Brighton relaunch' had the following ingredients:
To frame the election as a choice between 'five more years of Brown' and 'change'. 70% of voters don't want Brown to continue as Prime Minister. Tory strategists think that is their strongest card. The themes of this leaflet will be repeated in all election literature in the 70 days to the likely date of the General Election. William Hague summarised the choice as "change or ruin".
Mettle v bottle. Party strategists have been briefing commentators that Cameron has consistently demonstrated mettle when it has been most demanded:
In contrast Brown is a bottler who never faced up to Tony Blair on Iraq. Bottled his £1m plan to call an election in
the autumn of 2007. Bottled telling the British people the truth
about the public spending cuts that are going to be necessary.
Hague has been put front and centre of the campaign. ConHome published
a poll last week showing as many members wanted the former Tory leader
to front the campaign as wanted David Cameron. Interestingly it was
Hague who welcomed David Cameron to Brighton for the 'arrival photo
opportunity'. That's traditionally the job of the Party Chairman. He also led the attacks on Labour...
The attacks on Labour are now policy-focused. The 2% Tory lead
yesterday was proof, if proof was needed, that bully-gate was a
distraction from the main themes of the election. David Cameron was
wrong last week - spurning Jonathan Isaby's advice
- to wade into the row caused by Andrew Rawnsley's book. The Tories
should be above personality politics and focus on the substantial.
'Melanchthon' used a CentreRight.com blog to set out six substantial attacks. I think his top four are enough.
Boosting of George Osborne. Labour see the Shadow Chancellor as the weak link in the Tory machine. Ken Clarke spent a good part of his Saturday afternoon speech praising the man who aspires to be the next Tory Chancellor. Clarke's praise of Osborne reminded seasoned observers of the veteran Tory's 'any enemy of John Major is an enemy of mine' stance from the 1990s. There were no new announcements on tax but the attitude from George Osborne has shifted. The Telegraph got a strong briefing for its Saturday edition that tax cuts would come within fifty days as part of a growth agenda.The Tory campaign is now focused on six themes.
Immigration is not one of the six Tory themes but Cameron is now at least mentioning voters' number two issue (as Labour ministers are). This is what he said in yesterday's speech:
"People want us to be frank about the issue of immigration, it has been too high for too long, and it needs to be cut, and I will cut it, and we've set out reasonably, sensibly, calmly, how that should be done."
Jonathan Isaby's verdict: A confident, from-the-heart performance by David Cameron aimed primarily at those outside the hall rather than those inside it. He emphasised how the party has changed from that which it rejected at the last three elections and highlighted that Conservative policies were not only responsible, but also necessarily radical. He then proceeded to explain some of the changes which the Conservatives will offer the country, making the contrast with Labour - and Brown's - failures on the economy and a whole range of policy areas.
David Cameron is expected to speak without notes, so no text of his speech is being distributed in advance; as such, these are highlights and not verbatim.
2.15pm A video of highlights from David Cameron's leadership since 2005 is now being shown...
2.18pm The shadow cabinet are being welcomed on to the stage.
2.19pm William Hague is introducing another short film attacking Labour failure and emphasising the need for change...
2.23pm David Cameron enters the hall.
2.26pm He namechecks some of the Shadow Cabinet - George Osborne, Ken Clarke, Theresa May. He attacks Labour for chopping and changing ministers a lot - and says Liam Fox, Andrew Lansley and Hague have all been in the same job for some years and would be fine minsters.
2.28 He praises the dedication and courage of those fighting in Afghanistan and pledges fullest support - and indeed equipment - for them.
2.29pm There are at most 70 days until the election. It's an election we have to win because the country is in a complete mess and it is our patriotic duty to turn this country around. Five more years of Brown would be a disaster for this country. The Government is so dysfunctional, divided and weak. They are locked in a dangerous dance of death which is dragging the country down. Only the Tories can give the country hope for the future. "We will not let you down".
2.31pm The British people still have questions to ask us - what kind of party are we, what do we stand for, what changes will we make? Am I really up for it and up to it?
2.32pm You decided by electing me you wanted to change the party. Now we can say we are the party of the NHS and you, the party, should be proud of that.
2.33pm We are the new environmental party. You selected brilliant women candidates, like Charlotte Vere in Brighton, so we will have more than 60 women MPs if we win. Plus you, the party, has selected candidates of all ethnic backgrounds. The change has not just been a paint job. He cites a number of the BME candidates who have been selected.
2.34pm He also congratulates Sayeeda Warsi for destroying that "nasty piece of filth" Nick Griffin on Question Tine (to great applause).
2.35pm We, the party, are like you, the country and are ready to serve you - and are never going back.
The spring conference has opened with rousing speeches from Party Chairman, Eric Pickles, and Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague.
"I'm sick of the speculation; just do it Gordon, call the election now - let the people decide."
He characterised the choice as being between "five more years of Gordon Brown's tired government or David Cameron and the Conservatives who have the energy, leadership and values to get the country moving again".
“Britain’s most crucial election for a generation will be held in a matter of weeks. Gordon Brown will not so much decide to call it as be finally dragged kicking and screaming to call it. His decision will be made for him, as so many of them are, by time running out. This is a Prime Minister who got ready for an election when he thought he could win it, then was too frightened to hold it, then has dragged out this miserable parliament to its fullest, bitter end, dithering and vacillating over every decision; a Prime Minister no one ever elected kept in office by Lord Mandelson who no one voted for at all, and who should have had the moral courage and political decisiveness to hold an election long ago."
And he added:
"It is that most crucial election because I believe the choice for Britain is as stark as this: it is change or ruin. When Gordon Brown took over, this, our great country, was the 4th largest economy in the world. Now it is falling behind and forecast within 5 years to be the 11th, behind not just growing giants like China, but behind our neighbours France and Italy. We were ranked 7th in the world for the competitiveness of our economy. Now we are 13th. We were 4th in the world for our tax and regulation. Now we are 84th and 86th."
Those final statistics drew gasps of shock from the audience.
Later in the speech he challenged those who said they did not know what a Conservative Government would do by stating a series of commitments the party is making:
When the Tories last met for their Spring Forum, in Cheltenham last year, the poll lead was 18%.
7.30am Friday: More detail from The Sun's poll:
Have you made up your mind how you will vote in the coming general election?
If you changed your mind, which party would you vote for?
The American people face neither the tax nor the regulatory burdens of the average Briton but they are up in arms at the fiscal incontinence of Barack Obama. The Tea Party Movement is a massive phenomenon in the US and the issues it champions help explain why Obama got sucker punched in one of his party's safest states, Massachusetts, earlier this month.
Where is the anger in Britain at Gordon Brown's 111 tax rises and his doubling of the national debt?
Brighton might not be the best place to launch Britain's Tea Party Movement (perhaps it is - tell us, Graeme Archer?) and it might not be the best branding for over here... but Dan Hannan intends to have a go this Saturday. If you live in the city or are attending this weekend's Tory Spring Forum you should go along at 5.30pm on Saturday to hear what Dan has to say. All the details are here.
Tim MontgomerieTwo other recommended events in Brighton: