No seaside sweets but plenty of delights in store
There will be no stiff seaside breezes this year, no fish and chips, no teeth rotting rock. None of the three main political parties will be holding their conferences by the coast in 2010. Instead, the Liberal Democrats will take a much expanded conference to Liverpool. Labour will return to Manchester and the Conservatives to Birmingham. But it is not just the trio of city venues that is different this year. Since the parties’ last annual gatherings, the political landscape has totally transformed in a way few predicted.
David Cameron will be welcomed to the Conservatives’ conference stage as Prime Minister. That much was according to his plan, but he’ll appear as the leader of a coalition, not the man who steered the Tories back to triumph, in a position where they could run the country on his own. So of course he will be rapturously received, but watch for the disgruntled, too.
So expect, from grassroots and possibly some backbench Conservative MPs, grumbling and groaning about what some Conservatives believe David Cameron gave away to get the coalition agreement off the ground – the party’s plan to bring back powers from Europe, his promise to find a way of scrapping the Human Rights Act, the increase in capital gains tax, the list goes on.
Some of the gripes are sour grapes from those who expected a job in government and didn’t get one. But there is a different anger too – a feeling in some quarters that it was worth putting up with the changes David Cameron made to the party as he would bring home the election. Having instead, ended up with a Coalition government, there is a sprinkling of malcontents who wonder why should they put up and shut up any more? As David Cameron privately acknowledges, he is having to spend more of his time managing his party in coalition. His party’s conference could be a living, breathing, example of that.
But it is the Liberal Democrats who expect the roughest ride. One senior Lib Dem adviser told me ‘we all know trouble is coming’, fearing the narrative of Lib Dem rifts and rows is already written. And as the Libs have found since taking positions in government there will be more attention on them – more charities and lobby groups attending, and many more journalists, too.
The Lib Dems’ attachment to party democracy too where open debate or lack of it often can cause them trouble at conference, like last year’s row over the mansion tax, could make things even worse. Nick Clegg has poured enormous energy into trying to take his party with him in these extraordinary few first months of coalition government. But there seems little doubt, especially after interventions over the summer from the party’s vocal deputy leader, that the party’s conference will be an opportunity for those with grievances to air them. And Nick Clegg will not be there for the whole week to keep the rank and file happy. The responsibilities of government beckon – he’ll be standing in for David Cameron at a meeting of the United Nations in New York. And some senior Liberal Democrats fear his absence could give more space to those who are anxious about the coalition.
For the Labour Party, conference should have a completely different complexion. Not just because it is the first such gathering in more than a decade with the party out of power, but because the first real event on the platform will be the announcement of the new leader. While Labour has sometimes struggled to force itself into the debate in the first months of the coalition, the new leader’s first task, like any opposition, is to make sure that the party is heard. After a somewhat lacklustre race for the party’s most senior post, it might not be automatic that the new leader grabs attention. But the party’s conference is the first big chance for the eventual winner to carve out the space to begin making the case for a future return of Labour to government.