Beyond the media hype of the Brexit battle between Boris and Theresa May this year’s Conservative Party conference was a heart searching and navel gazing spectacle.
Clearly still rattled by the result of 2017 election where Theresa May lost them their overall majority – by far the biggest topic on the fringe was how can they woo back droves of people under 45 who have deserted them for Labour.
Unusually for a party in power there were strident calls to develop new policies to win back these lost voters. Usually parties in government can take the initiative as they have the reins of power and can produce plenty of fresh ideas.
But the Tories at this conference were behaving like a party in opposition – a huge navel gazing exercise in a desperate search for new policies. Tory MP Chris Skidmore, policy vice chairman of the party, virtually gave the game away at a reception for the Conservative Policy Forum – when he alluded to the great revival of ideas by Sir Keith Joseph, which propelled Margaret Thatcher into Downing Street. But that was the 1970s when the party had lost power after Edward Heath’s disastrous performance.
David Cameron also tried to soften the image of the party – again the new ideas came when the party was in opposition in 2008.
So what are they trying to do? One of the more illuminating debates came at the Centre for Policy Studies fringe with the intriguing title, Today’s Millenials, Tomorrow’s Conservatives?
Chaired by Times columnist, Rachel Sylvester,it was platform for two potential rising stars, Sam Gyimah, the universities minister and a late replacement, Guy Opperman, the pensions minister.
The two were remarkably honest about the dilemma. Sam Gyimah admitted they were used to 18-21 year olds being left wing radicals but not the 25 to 45 year old age group. whom would be in work and bringing up families.
He blamed the continual war within the Tory party over Brexit as putting off young voters.
Guy Opperman admitted that they would not win by negative campaigning against Corbyn ” We won’t win by portraying Corbyn as an insane antisemitic Hamas supporting, Cuba loving, terrorist” he said.
That message did not seem to have reached the Tory party platform where Sajid Javid , the home secretary, warned of the security risk of having Corbyn as Prime minister and May devoted part of her speech to denouncing Corbyn over antisemitism, supporting Russia, decrying Nato and appearing on Press TV.
What did they want. Well, without a real trace of irony, it was the need for momentum without the capital M.
Energy, drive, policies that were inclusive, equal pay for women, responsible capitalism, support for the NHS and more and more housing. In olden times, it would be called progressive conservatism. Guy Opperman as pensions minister, was asked by one member of the audience whether to remove parts of the triple lock on pensions to assuage the plight of the young. He was remarkably silent on this saying he did not want to make manifesto commitments at this time. Pressed afterwards he said he liked to get away from always talking about pensions.
But what was missing was any big idea on how to tackle the issues that Labour was pushing – the failure of private firms running the railways, over crowded classrooms, police and prison service in crisis,giving workers a bigger stake in private companies. They will have to offer real alternatives to wean voters away from Labour. Their only big point was that Corbyn hadn’t the money to do anything about it without ruinous taxation and borrowing.
It is all predicated on Britain entering the sunny uplands once we have left the EU and can plan for a post Brexit society. If Brexit turns into chaos it will further alienate that target age group.
Labour should not be complacent about the dilemma the Tories face. At the Conservative Policy Forum reception there was a strong rallying cry for people to set up constituency wide policy groups to try and draw up more attractive policies and to reach out to non Conservatives – I expect aimed at that 25-45 year age group – to participate.
Just before I left I had a word with George Freeman, Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk, one of the most active MPs seeking new Tory policies to appeal to the younger voter. Surprised to find that a hack had sneaked into the reception to hear about their plans, he jested I was only there for the drink. Then being more serious he asked:
” Why don’t you join the Conservative forum and help us devise new policies?”
I politely declined, made my excuses and left.