Live from the Conservative Conference
This year’s Conservative conference comes from the heart of the country in the Birmingham International Conference Centre. A huge number of delegates made the journey from the four corners of the UK to attend the first conference joined by a Conservative Prime Minister for 14 years. The delegates I have met are in very good heart and seem very supportive of the coalition with the Lib Dems. I have yet to meet any of those who the media seem to focus on, who are supposedly annoyed with David Cameron or resenting the coalition.
I have yet to attend any of the sessions in the main hall, which these days are pretty sterile and uninteresting. Instead I have focussed on a range of fringe meetings which is where the real mood of the conference can be sensed. It was at a Transport for London meeting that I had the opportunity to meet with Theresa Villiers (Transport Minister) and lobby her for the £15m in Regional Funding Allocation that we need to complete the Reading Station upgrade, and also for Crossrail to come to Reading. Understandably she would not commit to anything but the points were made.
It has also been good to meet friends that I tend to only see once a year at conference and to catch up with friends who are now newly elected MPs or Council Leaders. One noticeable feature is the sheer number of exhibitors this year. Every nook and cranny of the area outside the main hall is packed with everything from the Royal Mail stand; stands for the Conservative Friends of Poland, Turkey and Azerbaijan; and a big commercial area including M&S, Asda, Tesco and smaller retail outlets. I chuckled at the “Beer and Sandwiches” stall which is labelled “Red Ed’s”, alluding of course to the Trade Union votes which enabled Ed Miliband to beat his older brother for the Labour leadership.
There have not been that many announcements so far, reflecting the fact that we are all awaiting the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) in a couple of weeks time. However, yesterday’s announcement that Child Benefit will no longer be paid to higher rate tax-payers has undoubtedly rattled a few cages. In these straightened times, I do not see how the Government could justify paying benefits to higher-rate tax-payers when it is cutting them from those less afluent but it is a brave government that takes money away from many of its key supporters.
Tomorrow afternoon David Cameron makes his key-note speech and I will need to be there early to catch a seat, for what will undoubtedly be a packed hall. It will be interesting if he has any big announcements up his sleeve. Whatever he says I am sure that most delegates will depart happy, simply for the fact that so many new Conservative MPs and new Ministers have been present and that we have, at long last, a Conservative Prime Minister. I am not sure that the audience next year will be so unconditionally supportive!
UPDATE: I managed to get into the main hall for David Cameron’s speech. As with previous years the stewards were turning people away and saying the hall was full but I managed, with some colleagues, to get high up in the main hall to watch the speech live. It was not Cameron’s most exciting speech but it was well received by the delegates. He manages to combine the seriousness needed from a Prime Minister with a little levity and a healthy dose of personal humanity. Provided that the CSR does not deliver any unwelcome surprises I think most Conservatives will be very happy with the Government that David Cameron is leading. If what I hear is true, that Defence is to be spared major budget cuts (less than 10% over 5 years being suggested) then I will also be happy.