Can the Conservatives win back votes in the north?
The Tories are back in Manchester, Britain’s most political provincial city – in terms of its history at least. Manchester is the home of capitalism, nineteenth century liberalism, and free trade, as once represented by the old Free Trade Hall which is now one of the two big hotels next to the conference centre.
The Midland Hotel next door is where Rolls met Royce, and both buildings are on the site of the famous Peterloo Massacre, where in 1819, armed militia killed at least 11 Chartists who were demonstrating for universal suffrage. This was the event which led to the foundation of the Manchester Guardian newspaper (now plain Guardian).
And that’s not Manchester’s only claim to radical fame. The TUC was founded here, the Suffragette Movement too, and the Co-operative Movement not far away, with the Rochdale Pioneers.
But the Conservative Party has fared badly here in recent times. Manchester has not elected a Tory MP for more than 25 years while the last elected Conservative councillor lost his seat more than a decade ago (and yet the party had a majority on the council in 1970 under Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, who turned 100 last year).
And the task of winning back votes in the north, and in the northern cities will be one of this week’s big conference side-themes (they don’t have any councillors in Liverpool, Sheffield or Newcastle either).
With definite signs of economic recovery and a distinct narrowing in the polls over the summer, Tory activists expected to meet here in good heart, with the real prospect of achieving a majority government in 2015. But now Ed Miliband’s thrown a spanner in the works with his commitment to freeze energy prices for 20 months after the next election.
A major task of this conference will be to persuade voters that Miliband’s policy is a mad idea which won’t reduce energy bills in the long term. But David Cameron and George Osborne also have the wider task of tackling Labour’s cost-of-living campaign based on the old Ronald Reagan question from 1980: “Can you say you’re better off then you were four years ago?” Only by 2015, it will be five years.
As so often, the trickiest task of all falls to George Osborne in his speech on Monday. Can he hail substantial economic recovery without sounding triumphalist, and how does he tackle the cost-of-living issue? How does he come up with titbits such as the married tax allowance, whilst maintaining the firm commitment to cut the deficit?
Manchester 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the most extraordinary and historic Conservative Party conference of all, which was also held in the old county of Lancashire (which is being marked by a day of programmes on the BBC Parliament Channel today). In Blackpool in 1963, it was announced that Harold Macmillan was too ill to continue as Prime Minister, and so began a week of frantic electioneering by supporters of people such as Quintin Hogg (Lord Hailsham), Rab Butler, Alec Douglas-Home and others to secure the Crown.
David Cameron is similar to Macmillan in many ways, but like both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, he looks secure until 2015, barring a sudden Macmillan-style illness. Nonetheless, this conference will be awash with leadership calculations, and in fringe meetings and in their conference speeches we’ll witness the inevitable beauty parade in case Cameron fails to keep office in 2015.
Theresa May’s speech will be especially interesting, to see how much she ventures beyond Home Office matters, as she did over the summer. And Boris Johnson will make his usual whirlwind 18-hour visit, with a fringe event on Monday night and conference speech the next day.
But the most interesting fringe gathering could be the Bruges Group meeting with Nigel Farage. The Ukip leader has been banned from appearing inside the conference security cordon, and so the meeting takes place instead inside Manchester’s magnificent Town Hall (which, incidentally, has a superb collection of political statues). It will be interesting not just for what Farage says about possible pacts in seats where the Tory candidate holds similar views to Ukip, but also interesting to see how many party activists turn up to see Farage, and what they say about him.
HS2 and fracking will be two big issues which worry constituency members, and where the pressure groups and lobbyists will be out in force. And will the broadcaster-cum-publisher Iain Dale make a public reconciliation with the ubiquitous and fanatical anti-nuclear protestor Stuart Holmes after forcing him to the ground during an interview with Damian McBride in Brighton last week?
The party chairman Grant Shapps has also promised more details on the party’s membership figures. Having long refused to say what the overall total was, the party revealed a couple of weeks ago that it was 134,000, which constitutes a drop of almost 50 per cent since David Cameron was elected in 2005. But John Strafford of the Campaign for Conservative Party Democracy says the true figure is around 100,000. In many rock solid Labour seats in places such as south Wales, Liverpool and Glasgow, the party has no local organisation or members at all.
Follow Michael Crick on Twitter: @MichaelLCrick