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A blood and sword conference season

Submitted by on 16 Nov 2010 – 12:35

By Paul Routledge, a columnist for the Daily Mirror and Tribune magazine

Not since David Cameron took his party by storm in Blackpool to win the leadership five years ago has the conference season looked so juicy and inviting. Or the historical context so controversial.

This year’s conferences have all the signs of being a bloodcurdling experience for the three parties meeting in Manchester and Birmingham-blood on the walls. The only question is: whose?

Public support for Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems has dropped to levels not seen since the days of Jeremy Thorpe.  Party guru Simon Hughes has already rejected out of hand the idea of a pact with the Tories at the next election, sowing the seeds of the eventual dissolution of the coalition.

Long before that, my sources tell me the Lib Dems face virtual annihilation north of the border when Scots go to the polls to elect their parliament next May. Ditto, Wales – and London, where the mayoralty is up for grabs.

Labour has experienced something of a revival since the election, with tens of thousands of new members joining the party. And while supporters of David Miliband were baulked of an instant shoe-in for their man by the NEC’s insistence on a three-month leadership campaign, it is generally conceded that this was a wiser course than a straightforward Blairite continuum.

We know more about the next generation of Labour’s next generation, and where they want to take the party. They have raised their own profiles ahead of autumn elections for the Shadow Cabinet, and even Diane Abbott, a stranger to ministerial responsibility, may be offered a job. “That’ll keep her quiet,” said one MP ruefully.

Unlike most of the political commentariat, who defined the prospective new leader against the appeal of David Cameron and nostalgia for Tony Blair, I actually had a vote in this contest. I gave Ed Balls my first preference, and the second to Ed Miliband. However, I can live with David Miliband (the choice of the Daily Mirror) at the helm.

Even with Miliband Major in charge, I suspect that Labour will be more Labour after the sometimes-bruising contest we have been through. There is a growing conviction that the party has to move on from the “new” years. Reinventions come round about every decade, so we are long overdue one. Ironically, Blair’s memoirs have reinforced the case for fresh thinking.

And nowhere better than Manchester to do it: a Labour city, the intellectual hub of radical thinking down the years and blessed with a strong trade union tradition. The first Leader’s speech will be a test of his ability to draw on these wells of inspiration. He won’t get a better chance.

Naturally, the Tories wish to lay on a delayed coronation of their leader who didn’t quite win the election but nonetheless became their first Prime Minister for thirteen years. But the joy will be tinged with regret that they didn’t achieve a clear-cut victory, and the strains are already evident in “blue on blue” conflict at Westminster. With Lord Tebbit and David Davis sniping from the sidelines, and several dozen backbenchers sore at not being on the front bench, there is ample scope for troublemaking.

Loyalty long ago ceased to be the secret weapon of the Conservative Party, and Central Office high command is particularly anxious about “the BoJo factor.”  Boris Johnson’s term as London Mayor may not have been the most riveting political event of the 21st century, but he remains hugely popular among the Tory rank and file.

He says what they think, about tax, the banks and the wishy-washy centre ground occupied by the coalition, but he’s still refusing to commit himself to running for a second term. His appearances on the fringe are guaranteed to fire up the faithful, positioning BoJo for a leadership bid if “events, dear boy, events” run away with themselves, as not infrequently happens in public life.

The Tories didn’t do particularly well in Brum during the election, losing several seats thought to be in the bag. But now they are in government, all that’s behind them. David Cameron, fresh from the other kind of labour ward as a new father again, is sure of a rhapsodic reception from the floor of conference.

The Tories do public acclamation well. However, I shall be listening in the drinks parties and watching at the fringe meetings for those tell-tale signs of discontent: applause for Cameron’s critics, underwhelming praise for the leader and discreet digs at the coalition partners.

So, whose blood will be on the walls? Not that of the new Labour leader. It’s just too soon to find his political jugular. And not Cameron’s, because at least he did it in May, even if he didn’t do it very well. No, I think the sanguinary victim this year will be Nick Clegg – at the hands of the media, if not his own troops.

His stand-in stint in Number Ten, extended by the birth of Dave’s daughter, failed to lift his public profile. Even a well-choreographed visit to the front line in Afghanistan bombed (if that’s the right expression). He’s the one under most pressure.