ANGRY screams of anti-austerity protesters outside were not enough to dampen the mood at this week’s Conservative Party Conference in Manchester.
Party members were subjected to verbal abuse, and had eggs thrown at them by demonstrators, as they entered or left the conference centre this year.
But they remained in good spirits, buoyed by their election victory. The Chancellor, George Osborne, who is one of the favourites to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister, insisted that the Conservatives were now the “true party of labour”, and urged Labour supporters who felt alienated by the new leadership of Jeremy Corbyn to join his party instead (News, 2 October).
A former Labour minister, Lord Adonis, would lead a new national infrastructure body, he announced, and councils would be allowed to set and keep their share of business rates.
Mr Cameron’s speech, which closed the conference on Wednesday, continued the appeal to the centre ground. He vowed to continue to fight for greater equality of opportunity in Britain.
He announced plans to release house-builders from the obligation to include affordable homes in new developments if they built discounted “starter homes” for first-time buyers under the age of 40.
His speech also included a stinging attack on Mr Corbyn: “We cannot let that man inflict his security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating ideology on the country we love.”
The Revd Robin Fox, a Methodist minister from Wales and a Conservative Party member, said that the conference mood seemed celebratory. “It was the first conference after the General Election win,” he explained. Lots of people were there for the first time, as they had joined the Conservative Party after the election.
“That was mixed with the very vocal demonstrators outside, which was actually quite frightening. There was a feeling we had to run the gauntlet just to get into the conference.
“But it is still pretty buoyant and optimistic for the future. We have now got the mandate to continue to finish the job.”
One possible bump in the road are the Government’s plans to cut tax credits for working families. A Christian charity, CARE, said that three million households would lose an average of £1400 a year.
CARE’s chief executive, Nola Leach, said on Monday: “Increasingly prominent voices are raising very real and genuine concerns about the Chancellor’s tax credit plans. The Chancellor must think again.”
Mr Fox said that he would be watching “with interest” to see if the Tories drifted further to the Right, having jettisoned the Liberal Democrats from their governing coalition. “I hope we don’t lose the social conscience,” he said. “I would like to think we are the party for everyone, rich or poor.”
Speaking at a conference fringe event, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, condemned the benefits system as “Kafkaesque”. He said that the rules should be relaxed, even at the cost of letting some people get away with fraud.
“We have to let a few manipulative people get away with it if we’re not going to have too many innocent people punished,” he said. “My first priority would be to drive down the unacceptable delays in benefit payments and the wrongful or over-zealous imposition of sanctions.”
While the Methodist Church was essentially “the Labour Party at prayer”, Mr Fox said, the wider Church did share some of the concerns and aspirations of the Conservatives.
“We want to bring out the best in everyone. I think that’s common ground, although we might have different ways of showing it.”