Feature: What the Tories are really thinking

Grassroots Conservatives are approaching the coalition with cautious optimism, at best. Most are filled with anxiety about saving their party from the Liberal Democrats.

By Alex Stevenson

The moody video played before David Cameron’s speech on Wednesday summed it all up. As footage of the Tory leader entering Downing Street was shown ominous, not triumphant, music, played. Delegates clapped anyway, but did so uncertainly at first. They have spent their week in Birmingham trying to ignore the fact they’ve been forced into sharing power with the Lib Dems. And they are accepting the situation – for now.

Coping with coalition

The decision to get into bed with the Lib Dems isn’t opposed, at least. “As far as I can see Nick Clegg should really be in our party,” says Clare Coffey, linked to the Cities of London and Westminster constituency. “He’s more of a left-wing Tory really.” She gives the coalition seven out of ten.

When confronted with the problem, most display a prickly insistence that it will be alright. “Everyone’s getting something out of it,” one wannabe candidate who prefers to remain anonymous says. “We’re in a political time where we need to think what we’re putting into the country to get us out of the crisis rather than thinking what we’re going to get out of it as individuals or political parties.”

This is the party line down to a tee – the tagline for the conference, after all, is ‘together in the national interest’. Delegates point out you can’t turn the clock back, that we’ll never know what would have happened if Cameron had decided to press on with a minority government. “One can only hope that the goodwill which is there on the surface now does in fact continue,” the confusingly-named Michael Heseltine (no relation) from Richmond says cautiously.

The generalised expressions of support are hiding genuine concerns. Eric Carter from Telford and Wrekin, a “Conservative through and through”, says the coalition has been “beneficial in many ways”. But it has scuppered his aspiration to see the Human Rights Act repealed and ruined his hopes for a rollback of Harriet Harman’s Equality Act. “It’s hard for people for me to say I support them but I do because it’s the only game in town, basically.”

That’s the pragmatic spirit, but it hardly addresses the worries about what it means for the future. Conservatives are inherently opposed to change, after all – it’s in the name. Jack Hayward, of Shrewsbury, thinks one of two things is happening. “Either Cameron is playing an exceptionally long game, looking at a long-term relationship with the Liberal Democrats… or alternatively Cameron’s thinking is that in reality the future of British politics in ten to 15 years will be shared around coalition values and that Labour will implode as a result.”

It’s not a pleasant prospect. “For people like me who are on the right-wing of the party it’s a very difficult area,” Mr Hayward says.

A blow for the middle classes

The row over George Osborne’s decision to axe child benefit has dominated talk in the bars and restaurants around the International Conference Centre and Hyatt Regency hotel. Conservatives are especially good at representing the middle classes, so it’s to be expected that not all are comfortable with the chancellor’s plan.

“I have to be honest – I’m against what David Cameron and his team are promoting,” Clare Coffey, the very first person I speak to, concedes.

“I think it’s giving out the wrong message. That cut should not have happened.”

The chancellor argued it was fair that higher earners – those earning over £44,000 – should lose their child benefit completely. Ms Coffey disagrees.

“I think if you have a child, whether you’re living in a mansion or in a poor house, the benefit is there for your child to use while they’re a child. Not to save it up for their bank accounts. That’s what it’s there for. Women chained themselves against railings so we could get these benefits!”

It feels like it’s the older sections of the Conservative party which are especially uneasy. One member talks with a twinkle in his aged eye about how, as an only child, he complained about first-borns not being eligible for the old family allowance.

The up-and-coming youngsters have a more pragmatic view. “Clearly it’s always incredibly difficult to take a decision to cut funding to anybody,” Bess Rhodes, from Cheshire, says. She points out the poorest in society aren’t going to be hit by this measure. “I think most people have accepted that sadly Labour got us into such a financial mess that things are going to have to be cut,” she adds. “They’re doing their utmost to minimise the harm which might be caused.”

As it stands the majority appear to oppose the child benefit cut, despite Ms Rhodes’ protestations of fairness. Eric Carter speaks for many when he points to an apparent anomaly with Osborne’s proposals. At present two parents earning just under the threshold – and therefore having a joint income of over £80,000 – will continue to receive the benefit. A single parent who earns £45,000 would not. Mr Carter is “not too happy” about that. He shakes his head. “That doesn’t seem to me like joined-up thinking.”

Neither the compromises of coalition nor the privations of austerity are causing Tory party delegates to leap around with delight. Instead they’re being forced to swallow them whole.

At least these are in response to the economic and political times. Yet they are not the be-all and end-all of Tory party members’ worries.

Old wounds

The bread and butter issues are causing some headaches, too.

Higher education is one of them. Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable’s proposals for a graduate tax are opposed by Bess Rhodes, who is doing a PhD at St Andrews university. The impending review from Lord Browne could recommend this, increasing the burden on graduates from the current tuition fees set-up.

“I have to admit instinctively I would prefer the idea of students having their undergraduate education completely free but I can see in a time of financial difficulty… it might be one area where the people who benefit from it might be expected to pay,” she says. “But it’s something that concerns me.”

Eric Carter brings us back to core business for ordinary Tories. “I think the two areas that most Conservatives are concerned about are defence and law and order,” Eric Carter explains. He thinks Liam Fox has done well in fighting the military’s corner. But the very liberal Ken Clarke, whose approach to criminal justice is about downplaying prison sentences, is another matter altogether.

“You’re talking to somebody who is probably to the right of Genghis Khan here,” he admits cheerfully. “I’m not really a great believer in spare the rod and spoil the child.” Mr Carter says he acknowledges high reoffending rates undermine his belief in custodial sentences. But he’s worried by ‘lifers’ being let out early and wonders what the implications of Clarke’s approach will be. “I’m not too clear about his views about helping the criminal fraternity.”

It’s true – the Tories really are united behind firmer approaches to law and order. They believe prison keeps criminals off the streets, deters people from committing crime and needs to remain in place. Michael Hesletine calls himself a “hard man” on these issues and, after many years of opposition, is now in favour of capital punishment.

Even the loyalists aren’t quite on message. “Ken Clarke is absolutely right on what he says, that we need to do something more purposeful with inmates while they’re inside,” our unnamed Tory says. “That is an absolutely right approach. I think the danger is in the past we’ve maybe been too lenient.”

Jack Hayward is more open in his disdain for the justice secretary. “I’m not supporting him because at the end of the day Clarke has always been a bit of a bogey figure in the Conservative party, in a way.” His pro-European stance doesn’t help, it seems. “If Clarke had been any further left wing you might have said he might have been a member of the SDP. I do question why Cameron appointed him to the post.”

Ah, Europe. It would be impossible to assess the Tory party’s mood without turning to the issue which, above all others, has the potential to rip it down the middle. The impending Lisbon treaty brought it to the fore last year in Manchester, but it’s different this year. “Europe’s gone away,” Clare Coffey says, before instantly pivoting to talk about spending cuts instead. There’s a sense she wasn’t especially keen to talk about it.

So far the coalition has done a good job of avoiding tensions, both on the continent and within the government. “Conservatives have always adopted quite a pragmatic approach to Europe,” Bess Rhodes says. “Where things are clearly in the interest of Britain and the EU as a whole we fully supported them. So I would assume the Conservatives would continue to adopt that approach with the support of the Liberal Democrats.”

Tensions on financial regulatory reform and further defence integration are bound to raise divides between the Tories and the Lib Dems, however. “I do have concerns,” Michael Heseltine warns. “On the surface it all seems to be going so well but I know certain Lib Dems…” he trails off, giving a meaningful look. “I would like to see them be as good as we hope they will be,” he adds diplomatically.

A moderate send-off

This sounds like a group of people who need a bit of cheering up. David Cameron’s closing speech to the 2010 conference, his first as prime minister, might have been an occasion for this. The Tories are back in power for the first time in 13 years, after all. But Cameron didn’t deliver.

His subdued performance was a dampened, muted affair, with lengthy passages without applause. The excuses of ordinary delegates afterwards were painful to listen to.

Serena Croad of West Worcestershire suggested: “He’s probably exhausted after four days of conference.”

Bob Moodie of Wythenshawe and Sale East explained helpfully: “He was just allowing the audience just a little bit of rest between the previous high point to think about what the next point was.”

And, in a helpful variant from Theodora Clarke from the Cotswolds: “He had some very important things to say, that’s all why we were quietly listening – because we all wanted to hear what he had to say.”

The reality was Cameron was just as constrained by the circumstances in which he found himself as the party faithful had been earlier. Ervine Okuboh of Billericay was listening to senior party figures give their squeaky-clean party line responses to the TV channels when I grabbed him. His analysis was far, far more rounded – and therefore accurate – than anything the Cabinet members doing the rounds had on offer.

“I think it hit just the right note,” he said. “There’s nothing to be triumphant about. But at the same time it wasn’t going to be one of those speeches where he had to be too despondent, neither.

“So he had to just hit the right note in terms of as the leader of the country giving us encouragement, but not trying to be triumphalist simply because Conservatives are back in power. We have the encouragement, but that’s tempered by the fact we have a huge amount to be done to get the country back on its feet.”

This isn’t shining optimism, but it is realistic. In the circumstances the Tories find themselves it’s what you’d expect. By next year, when the Conservatives return to Manchester for the 2011 autumn conference, we’ll be able to gauge whether some of the concerns raised in Birmingham have deepened into genuine threats to the coalition – or the party.