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The Party Conferences

Submitted by on 14 Sep 2011 – 14:32

Jon CraigJon Craig, Chief Political Correspondent Sky News

I was about to greet David Cameron at the end of play in the Fourth Test at the Oval when he was heckled and dived into his car.

“Sort the bloody riots out instead of watching the cricket!” a voice boomed from the beer tent behind me near the Hobbs Gate.

Who’d be Prime Minister?

He’d already abandoned one holiday, in Tuscany, and returned to Downing Street to deal with the riots. And he’d recalled Parliament – in mid-August!

And just a few days after his day at the Oval the Prime Minister interrupted a holiday in Cornwall and dashed back to No. 10 to deal with the dramatic events in Libya.

Now these two events which disrupted the Cameron family holidays are set to shape the agenda for the party conferences and the political year ahead.

David Cameron’s robust response to the riots and tough sentences handed out by some courts has delighted Tory traditionalists but appalled civil libertarians and Liberal Democrat MPs.

The PM’s supporters also claim that on Libya his gamble back in March, when he and Nicholas Sarkozy together led calls for military intervention, has now been vindicated.

But I predict a huge post-riots rumpus in Parliament over sentencing policy and Britain’s crowded jails and also clashes between MPs over the involvement of the already over-stretched British forces in a post-Gadaffi Libya.

Inevitably, though, the 2011-12 political year will almost certainly be dominated by the economy, as the euro-zone faces potential collapse, the British economy teeters on the brink of a possible recession and fears of job losses escalate.

And the big political contest of 2011-12 will not be a David Cameron-Ed Miliband clash but a re-run of the 2008 battle between two of the most colourful and controversial politicians in this country.

“Boris” and “Ken” are among very few politicians known to voters by their first name alone.

But the 2012 election for London mayor is more than just a popularity contest between two extroverts. (Or, more likely, a return grudge match – remember Ken’s “Boris is Hitler” jibe – between two political street fighters who loathe each other.)

That’s because London’s electorate is huge, the capital is a key electoral battleground and the Johnson-Livingstone showdown will be a massive pointer for the prospects for Cameron and Miliband – and Nick Clegg, to a lesser extent – at the next general election.

The riots that began in Tottenham and spread to the suburbs will certainly dominate the London mayoral election. They’ve been a tricky issue for both leading candidates.

Boris has faltered and suffered a hostile reception in what should be solidly Conservative parts of the city.

Yet Livingstone’s response has been so cack-handed – ludicrously claiming the violence and looting was a “revolt” against “massive cuts” – that some Labour figures privately talked about dumping him and replacing him with the impressive and dignified Tottenham MP, David Lammy.

Too late!

I can recall months ago talking to Labour MPs who were distraught that the only choice of candidate the party was offered was the veteran left-winger defeated in 2008 and a defeated ex-MP, Oona King.

But apart from moaning, those MPs who feared Ken would be a vote-loser again in 2012 did nothing to prevent him being adopted as Labour candidate once again.

Traditionally, the political year begins with the autumn party conferences. But before then the riots and Libya will figure largely during the two-week sitting of Parliament in September.

During my summer holidays I read Volume Two of Chris Mullin’s excellent diaries, Decline and Fall, in which he repeatedly complained about the long summer recess and the Labour government’s refusal to implement recommendations for a two-week September sitting.

I wonder if David Cameron will soon regret implementing the change. This year, besides statements and emergency debates on the riots, Libya and the economy, the main set-piece Commons business during the September fortnight is the Government’s NHS reforms.

Some respite for David Cameron and the Coalition? Hardly. These reforms are in real trouble and I predict even greater trouble as the legislation moves to the House of Lords later.

After disastrous results in this year’s local elections, the Liberal Democrats open the conference season in Birmingham with Nick Clegg again facing hostility from activists over the price of being in Coalition with the Tories.

Labour go to Liverpool with Ed Miliband still yet to convince everyone in his party that he’s up to the job, despite inflicting real damage on David Cameron in the phone hacking scandal back in the summer. I expect we’ll hear plenty more from Labour about hacking, Andy Coulson and David Cameron’s links with Rebekah Brooks and News International.

Look out for sniping from the Blairites in the fringes, however. Many Labour MPs still haven’t forgiven Ed for defeating his brother a year ago. And will David Miliband show up? Or will he snub his younger brother by staying away?

Will Ed Balls – dubbed a “deficit denier” by his critics – seek to undermine the other Ed on the economy and those “Tory cuts”?

Will Gordon Brown turn up and deliver another rant like his speech during the hacking debate in the Commons in July?

What a wonderful political soap opera the Labour Party continues to be!

And then there are the Tories, in Manchester this year. Euro-sceptic MPs are spoiling for a fight on the EU. Other Right-wingers will line up to accuse the Prime Minister of making too many concessions to the Liberal Democrats.

For the first time in many years, thanks to the hacking scandal, I’m told there will be no News International receptions at the party conferences this year. In fact, there won’t be many receptions hosted by media groups. And the atmosphere and the relationship between politicians and the media is likely to be very different and much less cosy, though I suspect some of the private dinners hosted by Fleet Street editors for senior politicians will continue.

I wouldn’t say my party invitations for the conferences have dried up. But there are certainly fewer than in previous years.

Cynics will tell you that party conferences are just leaders’ rallies these days. But in the conference season now upon us and in the year ahead in Parliament I’d say the politician to watch and the one with the most to gain or lose is probably not David Cameron, Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg.

No, not Boris Johnson either. For David Cameron, Boris is an irritant and potential rival. But Cameron needs the blond ambition of Mayor Boris to see off Ken Livingstone’s challenge to show that Tory support in London is solid.

But what the Prime Minister needs more than anything in the next 12 months is a solid economy.

And so he needs his Chancellor and closest political ally, George Osborne, to be solid, too. The next 12 months are probably going to be much trickier for the Chancellor than the previous year.

Plenty of MPs, both in his own party and among his political opponents, will be offering the Chancellor their advice, with Labour’s attack dog and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls the most vocal.

So we will no doubt hear a lot of debate in the conference season and beyond about scrapping the 50p tax rate, the LibDems’ “mansion tax” idea, spending cuts that go “too far and too fast” and those volatile growth figures.

But in the year ahead, unless the riots here and the turmoil in Libya flare up again, voters like the heckler at the Oval who told David Cameron to “sort out the riots” will most of all want the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to sort out the economy.