Analysis: The fight against complacency

There was an awful lot of champagne drunk in Manchester last night. Don’t they know there’s a complacency ban on?

By Alex Stevenson

On and on, into the night, foot soldiers of the Conservative party caroused into the wee small hours. There were no escapist round-the-piano singalongs, as we saw in Brighton. Instead pleasant chit-chat, with occasional outbursts of guffawing, was the order of the night. Regular breaks were taken to spend half an hour queuing at the impossibly small bars, entirely justifying the bulk purchases of vast bottles of champagne. The girls looked pretty. The men looked self-satisfied. They looked like members of a party who were celebrating a landslide victory, not one out of power for 12 years.

The late-night champagne quaffing is probably due to Conservatives’ natural outgoing sociable nature. Despite that, it’s impossible to evade the sense that this is a party fighting against the temptations of taking-it-for-granted.

“The general election is not in the bag,” party chairman Eric Pickles urged yesterday. At the very least it is looming. That’s excuse enough for most Tories. Crack open the champers, darling.

Dealing with such exuberance creates something of a headache for the professional politicos close to the party’s summit. I spoke to one yesterday who revealed his entire raison d’etre over the course of the conference was to search out and destroy any budding complacency. I was tactfully steered away from one senior shadow Cabinet member, who was declaring to all and sundry he was perfectly happy appearing in any “milieu”. The minders are doing their work well.

There’s a tough balance to be struck between being upbeat and smug. Most Conservatives believe a hung parliament is the worst-case scenario, with a majority of around 30 the average prediction. It’s reasonable for them to anticipate victory. But it’s also politically unacceptable. There is nothing more crippling than assumptions of triumph, nothing more infectious than a slackening of effort. Recent Conservative successes have been helped the government’s unpopularity, but hard graft on the part of countless activists is what’s been proved decisive again and again.

The Tories have good reason to follow the wise words of their chairman, Eric Pickles. “We want to earn each and every vote,” he told them at the opening of conference yesterday. “We don’t want to get people’s votes just because we are not the Labour party.”

There’s a kernel of truth there which should trouble the Tories more than it does. A strong general election victory can be taken for granted, but it’s not clear whether David Cameron’s policies are winning over the hearts of the British people. That’s a real worry for the Conservatives, but one which appears to be pushed to one side through the haze of an expected general election victory – and several bottles of champagne.