Last week I was at the Conservative Party conference, in Manchester, as an observer.
This was my first visit to a national UK political party conference and naturally enough the scale and size of the project was impressive. Some of the camera lenses seemed to be about 8 feet long! You also have to be careful at these events, as when taking a business call, I received a text pointing out I was standing behind Boris Johnson as he was being interviewed on national TV!
Before I arrived at the conference, I had in my mind an image of the typical 18-24 year old young Tory – brash, well dressed, confident, a bit arrogant, and I wasn’t disappointed. A typical moment was when I was having a coffee, and one of the young Tories at the next table jokingly exclaimed to their neighbours that this was a ‘Winchester table, and that the Etonians should sit elsewhere’! These young Conservatives exude a confidence beyond their years, no doubt a result of their expensive private educations. But are they typical of the average UK 18-24 age-group to which they belong – I doubt it!
As you enter the main conference hall, there was a large Maggie Thatcher stand with all the usual mugs, T-shirts, pens, etc., and with a large strap-line at the top of the stand saying ‘The trouble with Socialism is you eventually run out of spending other people’s money’. But of course it’s in the bars, restaurants, and coffee shops where you find out what the grassroots Tories are really thinking. I would describe their mood as cautious optimism – at best. There was a lot of disquiet about Cameron’s handling of the same-sex marriage issue, and of course concern about UKIP.
There were to be new electoral boundaries brought in during this parliament, but these were vetoed by the Lib-Dems because of the Conservatives not supporting House of Lords reform. Now many of the Conservative faithful are beginning to realise that these unchanged constituency boundaries, which will be used in 2015, mean the Conservatives have to be 5-6% ahead in the popular vote to have a 50/50 chance of getting an overall majority. Yes, they need to be 5-6% ahead to break even, and they are currently 10-12 points behind in the polls – so it’s a big ask to get an overall majority. When I pointed this out to many of them, they gave expressions of shock, and a realisation set-in of the electoral mountain the Conservatives have to climb to win.
I also attended one of the many fringe events where the main speaker was Ken Clarke. Recognised as Britain’s best post-war chancellor, and now in his mid seventies, he still had the oratorical powers to hold the packed out audience spellbound. He pointed out the position the Conservatives were in saying ‘It’s been over 20 years since this party has won an election, and they used to be the natural party of government’. It’s a tragedy for the Conservatives that they didn’t elect him leader when they had the chance. He would have run Blair close in 2005, and history for the Conservatives could have been so different.
In his keynote speech, David Cameron had to assert of course that he is going for an overall majority, but he gave an impression he’s not totally confident that will be achieved. As usual, the finale was razz-a-ma-taz with Cameron leaving the stage to the sound of Fleetwood Mac and ‘Don’t Stop – thinking about tomorrow’.
However, it was noticeable that when leaving he only worked a small part of the audience, and didn’t do the ‘hand-shake run’ through the main part of the auditorium.
With only 19 months to go, Cameron is now in the final run-in to what will be the most crucial election of his career, and he may yet regret not sorting out the boundary changes with Nick Clegg from day one of this government. It’s too late now, and if he is to win in 2015 the Conservatives need to start reigning in Labour's lead in the polls, and quickly. As it says on the top of Paisleys church – Time is short!
Bill White is Managing Director of Belfast based Polling and Market Research company LucidTalk - Polling Partners to the Belfast Telegraph.