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Nick Vaughan: Worst nightmare or second honeymoon?

Bigpic_2 Nick Vaughan, a former Chairman of Conservative Future currently working for public affairs firm FD-LLM, overviews the challenges at conference.

David Cameron’s Conservatives return to Blackpool distracted with speculation of an impending General Election coupled with Labour taking a surge in the polls - with thanks to what many political commentators have deemed as Brown’s ‘second-bounce’. En-route to the seaside I look forward to what we can expect from Cameron’s speech, his key messages to delegates and the wider public - and what will be the key focus of debate which will draw the dividing line between the Conservatives and Labour.

From what was a handsome 13-point lead in the ICM poll in February 2007 is now a hefty trail to the Labour Party. The most worrying recent poll, again by ICM, now puts Labour 8 points ahead. It is no coincidence that changes in recent polls has arrived after what many have deemed as the most difficult period for David Cameron since his election as Leader. As Brown has taken unprecedented steps to create his so-called “government of all the talents”, Cameron’s own talent has been deserting him, with Graham Brady kicking off a summer of problems with his resignation over the Party’s policies on grammar schools in May.

We later saw the defection of Quentin Davies MP to Labour, public criticism of Cameron for not residing in the UK during the floods crisis, and the fallout of one his Shadow Ministers, Patrick Mercer MP over his alleged racist remarks about the British army.

Standing up for ‘’British values and for the British people” Gordon Brown this past week gave his vision of how he intends to run the Country, albeit keeping people guessing for how long, with speculation of a  ‘snap’ General Election continuing to dominate the headlines. Despite this, Cameron will utilise his Party’s annual gathering as an opportunity to provide a much needed morale booster for the Party’s ‘rank and file’, and more importantly, as an opportunity where he can seek to re-ignite the waning confidence of the wider public. Against the elder statesman of Gordon Brown who has been at the heart of government for little over a decade, this new boy on the block will have to provide one of the best speeches of his relatively short career in politics. It is a big ask considering the masterly experience in which Brown has seemingly managed to gain the centre-ground by backtracking on a lot of relatively unpopular socially liberal measures under Blair – supercasinos, reviewing all-night drinking and the downgrading of cannabis

With Brown's previous role as Chancellor and the recent troubles of Northern Rock, the economy will undoubtedly be a familiar theme throughout the conference. This is particularly timely in light of recent fears over a slowdown of the global economy. The Northern Rock episode may have no long-term effect on the economy, but the fact that Labour had such a substantial lead in the opinion poll at the height of the crisis highlights that in worrying economic circumstances, people don't necessarily turn against the government.  John Major believes that the recession of 1990-92 contributed to his victory in the 1992 General Election, by focusing attention on the issue of economic competence, and Gordon Brown's strong record as Chancellor may make people turn to him more in bad economic circumstances - something to consider for the future, if the Conservatives are depending on the economy getting worse.

However, according to the British Election Study it is public services which continue to ride high on people’s list of priorities. It is also on Brown’s priority list, with crime, health and education topping his list of priorities during his conference address last week. So while some references to the Conservatives’ popular stance on demanding Brown to call a referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty will be highlighted, this in itself will not prove enough to get the cockles of the British people going.

It will not be so much what Cameron says which will be of interest, but how much. The majority of his policy commissions have now published their policy recommendations and Cameron must decide whether this is the defining moment when the Party set-out their specific plans for government, or rather, take the less risqué option of setting out his main priorities as government-in-waiting.

Never mind the body of the policy commissions proposals, Cameron knows that if he makes just too many passing references to the Tax Commissions’ proposals, he will be accused of lurching back to right. And refer too much to the Quality of Life Commission's proposals for promoting ‘general well-being’ and he will be accused of being too soft against the hard, substantive demeanor of Brown. It is how much Cameron refers to each of the Commissions which will provide us with a guide to where his priorities will lie. To achieve the 40-42% required share of the national core vote one, can expect that he will continue with this soft-liberal vote luring language and approach. This will be much to the consternation of vast swathes of card-carrying Conservative activists and MP’s in attendance. However, if he is able to placate the twitchy elements of his party and confine their reservations to behind their Conference hotel room doors -  then maybe just maybe the Party machine can put ambitions of moving into Downing Street back on track.

The Labour Party was unquestionably desperate for power come 1997, and got behind their leader without swerve or in-house dissent. If there was anytime Cameron required the support of his party, it is now. This, in order to help overcome the Party’s problem that the easier days of 2006 are gone, and while Brown's honeymoon will pass at some point, Cameron's own honeymoon is not coming back.

The Conservative Party Conference will test his resolve and consequently his Party’s chances of returning to power. One may find it surprising what a positive signal could be sent to voters that come Wednesday afternoon what role a confident, power hungry Conservative Conference could have played in a future General Election victory.

This Conference could be Cameron’s worst nightmare, or his own second ‘honeymoon’.


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