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One word that cheered the hearts of the Tory activists

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 16, 2012

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London Editor Graeme Demianyk on the ten things we have learned from the party conference season

1. David Cameron is a Tory

As obvious as that sounds, not everyone was convinced. Vast swathes of the Conservative party were unsure precisely what the "Cameroon" agenda actually stood for. So commentators and activists were cheered to hear one word in particular at the heart of his leader's speech: aspiration. He also made a persuasive case for "compassionate" Conservatism that puts work at the heart of tackling poverty.

2. The Big Society has flopped

Perhaps the single most important reason why the Prime Minister was garlanded last week comes down to side-lining his pet project, the Big Society. Heaping praise on the hundreds of Olympic volunteers, the so-called "Games-Makers", he said: "You know, I've spent three years trying to explain the Big Society. They did it beautifully in just three weeks." A classy acknowledgement of failure.

3. The next election will be fought over public spending, welfare and education

Conference season effectively saw the starting pistol fired for the 2015 general election. The Liberal Democrats appointed former leader and Westcountry MP Paddy Ashdown as election maestro, and linked the health of the economy to their very survival. The Tories were more explicit: a strong private sector, welfare "that works" and "schools that teach" are the "battle-lines for the next election", Mr Cameron said. Labour – who have to decide whether to take credit for or oppose school reform – would dearly love it to be the NHS. But without lengthy waiting lists or patients in beds crowding hospitals corridors, the changes are too oblique for most voters to care.

4. The badger cull is poised to be explosive

The most fierce protests outside the Birmingham International Conference Centre, where the Tories held their conference, wasn't over public sector cuts but the looming cull of badgers to tackle tuberculosis in cattle. People attending – whether they were Conservative party members or not – were subjected to taunts of "shame on you", and worse, by anti-cull protestors. High-profile figures against the policy – from Labour leader Ed Miliband to Queen guitarist Brian May, who was lobbying MPs in Birmingham – have urged against intimidation. But when culling begins later this year it could be a bigger headache than ministers imagine.

5. All three leaders have shored up their position – for now

Muttering plagued both David Cameron and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg going into conferences. Labour's poll lead meant Ed Miliband's position was safer, though he had yet to quash persistent suggestions that it is his brother, David, that should have been leader. Each did enough. Mr Clegg's tuition fees apology – and subsequently bothering the pop charts – won back support from the party. Mr Cameron, too, kept the right of his party at bay by eschewing Europe and arguing why being on tough on welfare and reforming public services is right. It was Mr Miliband, though, whose star is in the ascendance, giving a soaring speech, pinching Tory One Nation-ism along the way, that doubters didn't think he had in him.

But we're still a long way from the next election.

6. Everyone is scared to talk about Europe

The modern Tory party is eurosceptic, of that there is no doubt. But the Conservative leadership does not want to leave the EU now, much to the chagrin of the more vociferous anti-members of the party. David Cameron would rather push for a piecemeal return of powers from European institutions. As a result of the nuance, Mr Cameron is waiting until later in the year to give his big EU membership speech, avoiding a collision with the Lib Dems. For now.

7. Are green issues important?

The greenest government ever? David Cameron offered three short sentences on the environment in his speech. But that was three more than Ed Miliband, who didn't mention green policies at all. The Bill Clinton election formula seems to be holding true: it's the economy, stupid, that matters.

8. Speaking without notes is boxing clever

Ed Miliband's hour-plus no-notes speech will probably be the only thing people remember from this conference season. David Cameron did something similar seven years ago to win his party's leadership. Interesting that Mr Cameron was seen as a clever clogs, while Mr Miliband was speaking from the heart. Asked on the eve of the PM's speech whether he was going notes-free, an aide replied: "He is running the country so doesn't have three months to practice one speech." Ouch.

9. Plans for local public sector pay are not dead

It may be Liberal Democrat policy to oppose local pay rates in the public sector, voted for at conference, but that doesn't mean ministers agree. The key word is local "flexibilities" in schools, hospitals and prisons rather than "regional" pay rates. It is wishful thinking for those who think they have seen it off.

10. Party conferences do little to change the public mood

Conferences make money for hard-pressed political parties. That's about it. Aside from buying each political leader some respite – all three performed well – they have done little to change the public's view. The polls, following the inevitable Tory bounce from last week, will settle down to as you were. In the gloves will come off.

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