Magazine article The Spectator

Fringe Benefits

Magazine article The Spectator

Fringe Benefits

Article excerpt

The Tory party conference this year was a remarkable success, a festival of conservatism with an impressive array of radical ideas on display. But almost all of them could be found in fringe events, and pitifully few in the hall of the conference. Even Cabinet members complained that the main event lacked fizz. Discussion centred around various ideas being discussed by backbenchers, rather than ministers. The intellectual leadership of the parliamentary party has passed to its lowest ranks.

David Cameron can take the credit for this shift. As opposition leader, he spent years working on policies to improve the calibre of parliamentary candidates, and has ended up with perhaps the most impressive cohort of young MPs delivered by any post-war election. The fringes were such an attraction because the Conservatives now have a striking number of MPs with passion, originality, fluency and independence of spirit.

They seemed interested in what they can do in government, not in the mechanics of winning elections. And unlike the battle-weary MPs elected in the Labour years, they feel no need to apologise for their philosophy.

Liz Truss's Free Enterprise Group of MPs, recently profiled by James Forsyth, could be guaranteed to fill any room they cared to speak in. The excitement that Boris Johnson caused when arriving in Birmingham New Street station was as nothing compared to the clamour to hear these MPs discuss the ideas in their book Britannia Unchained.

(Ms Truss, alas, was fully chained: she is now a part of the government, and not at liberty to talk. ) Lifting the burden on the low-paid and the next phase in welfare reform were topics that had hundreds trying to cram into budget hotels. So much was happening outside the party's gated zone that many had turned up without a conference pass.

The Labour conference, by contrast, showed no signs of intellectual life. Its fringe meetings suggested that the party had suffered not only a defeat in 2010, but a lobotomy. There were hardly any speakers worth listening to, though you could find stalls offering massages and a tailor measuring for bespoke suits. Those who came shopping for ideas would have left empty-handed. Even the left-wing campaign groups at Tory conference seemed to find it more stimulating.

All told, things are looking good for the Tories in 2020. But this is a rather depressing prospect for those who want solutions sooner. We may be about to repeat the cycle of the 1970s: after a Tory government that tries reform but can't implement it properly, Britain might endure a Callaghanesque five-year ordeal by an unprepared Labour party, before a reformed and radical Tory party finally gets it right. …

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