The mood at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester this year was markedly different to last year’s gathering in Birmingham. This time, Cameron and Osborne clearly have their sights on centrist Labour voters.
The mood at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester this year was markedly different to last year's gathering in Birmingham. At the 2014 conference, the Conservative Party was preoccupied by the threat from the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) after two high profile defections by Tory MPs. The focus then was clearly on ensuring that the Conservatives were not undercut from the right in the May 2015 election.
This year, UKIP was barely mentioned at all. After winning an overall majority in the general election, David Cameron (pictured above) stood before delegates as the first Conservative prime minister to win an outright majority since John Major in 1992. The confidence showed.
“The Conservatives now have a majority government and this conference provided glimpses of what we should expect in the coming five years,” says David Kirkby, senior research fellow at the liberal Conservative think tank Bright Blue. “Many see this as an opportunity to cement the party's appeal as the 'workers party', and policies such as the new National Living Wage are central for this.”
Of course, it is Labour that is traditionally the party of the workers. In September, Labour elected the veteran left-wing backbencher Jeremy Corbyn as leader. The Conservatives believe that this was a gift. Speeches by Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne both emphasised progressive values and compassion in a manner not often seen at a Conservative conference.
“Cameron and Osborne had one clear item on the agenda at this year's Conservative conference: to root their political project in the center ground of British politics. They hope that with Labour swinging to the left under Corbyn they can win over centrist and even center-left voters who would previously have voted for Labour,” says Charlie Cadywould, researcher in citizenship and political participation at the think tank Demos.
However, while Cameron, Osborne and other senior politicians, including Justice Secretary Michael Gove and the mayor of London Boris Johnson, all struck a markedly liberal note, it was the speech by Home Secretary Theresa May that grabbed the most headlines. She hardened her already tough line on immigration, blaming mass migration for unemployment and housing crises, and reiterating her pledge to get net migration to below 100,000. The speech was condemned by editorials in traditionally right-wing publications the Telegraph and the Spectator, with the former describing it as “dangerous and factually incorrect.”
Strains in the party ranks
The divergence in tone between senior politicians foreshadowed a leadership contest in the next few years. Cameron has previously suggested that he will not serve as party leader after the 2020 election, a position he confirmed in his speech.
“The Tory leader has given his party official permission to obsess about the leadership contest, and in return it has to put up with him being more centrist and more proud of achievements such as aid spending and gay marriage than many would like,” says Isabel Hardman, assistant editor of the Spectator magazine. “He made social reform the key theme of his speech, saying that ‘to make Britain greater, we need to tackle some deep social problems'. He ran through housing, poverty, education, prison reform, social mobility, discrimination, and extremism.”
Critics argue that Cameron and Osborne are appropriating the language of the left to describe right-wing policies, speaking of equality and diversity while pushing through cuts that have worsened the divide between rich and poor. Despite the emphasis on compassion, a tough autumn and winter is ahead, with further deep public spending cuts to come, as well as a brewing political row over cuts to tax credits.
Current Conservative strategy appears to be to claim as many popular positions as possible, borrowing from its opponents where necessary. For example, the Tories will establish a national infrastructure commission: a policy outlined in Labour's election manifesto earlier this year.
“Previous Demos research shows that a balance between conservative, centrist and progressive policies could be a successful electoral strategy, helping the Conservatives to win over both UKIP and Labour voters as well as many who didn't vote in 2015,” says Cadywould. “However, it is not clear how much this is part of a coordinated approach, rather than individual and deliberately divergent pitches to the party from potential successors to Cameron.”
Cameron was vague on Europe and Syria, both likely to be major issues over the coming year. The forthcoming referendum on membership of the EU, which Cameron has committed to hold by 2017, was widely discussed, particularly at fringe events. This debate has not yet descended into open warfare, but there were clear signs that there will be disagreement between senior Conservatives. Cameron is currently negotiating the terms of EU membership. May and Johnson both called for limits on EU migration which he is unlikely to be able to deliver on.
“With Europe set to be the defining issue of the Prime Minister's second term, it was surprising that he did not use this opportunity to give a full and frank update of his progress to secure European reform,” says Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, a business body. “Our members will support attempts to reform the principle of ‘ever closer union', but there was no news on when the vote will be held, or how Britain aims to achieve reforms which will boost competitiveness across the bloc, and loosen the knot of EU regulation choking many small businesses.”