Cameron creates a Conservative Party in his own image
Public Affairs Editor Paul Dale looks back on the Conservatives' visit to Birmingham.
It’s been 12 years since I last attended a Tory conference, but the memories remain vivid.
The dying years of Conservative domination were played out in a ghastly fashion, not dissimilar to a car crash in slow motion where onlookers knew what was going to happen, knew blood would be shed, but were helpless to do anything about it.
The 1996 conference at Bournemouth was a pitiful event, as befitted a party engaged in civil war and hurtling toward its worst defeat in history at the following year’s General Election. Torn apart by Europe, left and right-wing factions fought each other while fringe meetings became rallying calls for a change of leadership.
John Major, a decent man who arguably was over-promoted and was certainly destroyed by internal party bickering, began his closing conference speech on a surreal note: “Madam Chairman, we’ve had a good week.
“It’s been the week the Tory family came together - to renew the family contract with the British nation.”
Unfortunately for him, and for the Conservative Party, the British people disagreed and some seven months later were to tear up the contract, handing a landslide General Election victory to Tony Blair and paving the way for a decade of Labour governments.
Could the Tories change, as they knew they had to in order to win power again?
Was it really possible, after replacing three leaders in the space of eight years, that the Conservatives could re-brand themselves by moving sharply away from Theresa May’s damning indictment – the nasty party.
The 2008 conference in Birmingham demonstrated beyond doubt that David Cameron has cleverly softened and shifted the Tories, at least as far as its public face is concerned.
Twelve years ago, the average age of the membership was 60 and rising fast. The party was in danger of turning into a rump of angry, elderly and ultimately exhausted people raging against a multi-cultural Britain they neither cared for nor understood.
Changes evident at the ICC this week underlined Cameron’s hard work. There was a far younger age profile, lots of Tory activists under the age of 30 and some were even from an ethnic minority background. There was little evidence of the running sores of Europe and taxation policy that soured conferences in the 1990s.
Wilfred Emmanual Jones, a black farmer and candidate for Chippenham, was a star attraction whose fringe meetings were sold out.
If the Victor Meldrew brigade was present in the building, it was making itself very scarce indeed.
Angry finger-jabbing debates of the past were replaced by oh-so reasonable discussions by shadow ministers who sat in comfy chairs.
Even parliamentary candidates selected from the audience to speak appeared to have been chosen carefully in order to exclude anyone whose views could be interpreted as extremist or right wing.
It was very much in-keeping with the theme of compassionate Conservatism running through the conference. Nothing that was said or done in Birmingham would frighten the voters.
Cameron conducted a clever balancing act, condemning bankers with their unimaginably huge bonuses whose money-grabbing actions threatened to bring down economies across the world but at the same time restating his belief in free enterprise.
Party chairman Caroline Spelman began the week by pointedly reminding representatives that the Conservatives had to capture the middle ground in order to win the next election. No-one seemed to disagree.
There was much talk of social responsibility, with a film depicting MPs and shadow ministers taking part in the Welsh Farm housing project in Edgbaston.
Somehow, the sight of senior Tories doing their bit for the community didn’t look staged or in any way ridiculous.
Mrs Thatcher famously told a Tory conference that the important thing to understand about the Good Samaritan was that he could only help others because he was wealthy.
David Cameron, I suspect, would take the opposite view. The Good Samaritan wanted to help others because that is the right and proper thing to do.