If you want to understand the atmosphere at the party conferences this year, think of a group of eight-year-olds the night before Christmas: wildly over-excited, bright-eyed, tingling with anticipation of what lies in store.
Party conferences are always in the autumn. Elections rarely are (the last one was in 1974, although in the first half of the last century, autumn or winter elections were the norm) . So a conference which might be immediately followed by a poll is – for politicians and activists alike – a double dose of excitement. Elections, after all, are what politicians love most. It’s what keeps them going, makes them feel alive; so much more fun than sitting through interminable debates in council chambers or the Commons.
In Blackpool, the Tories surprised even themselves. As soon as George Osborne pulled his inheritance tax rabbit out of his hat, they were raring to go. In the faded fakery of the Winter Gardens, anything seemed possible, even an election victory.
Party activists are very different animals from the rest of us (and that’s true in all three main UK parties). Tory activists, for example, like talk of tax cuts, zero tolerance policing, and standing up for Britain. Voters seem to like talk of being kind to the environment, and caring for the disadvantaged. When David Cameron first became leader, he talked mainly to voters. Last week, he was talking to the activists, and his message changed – almost imperceptibly, admittedly – to accommodate their preferences. His skill was to do so while still reminding voters what he’d been saying to them too.
And yes, of course it was impressive that he memorised his speech. (No, it wasn’t improvised – how do you think Wednesday morning’s papers were able to print great chunks of it hours before he had delivered it?) But actors are pretty good at memorising scripts too – and we don’t automatically regard them as potential prime ministers.
As for the election, my editor – he who must be obeyed – thinks I should be ready to eat my hat, or humble pie, or possibly both. Last December, long before Mr Brown had even become prime minister, I boldly suggested that there might well be an autumn election. The editor thinks I might turn out to have got that wrong. Well, I’ve just looked up what I actually said (Newsletter No. 74, if you want to check in your leather-bound volume): “Although all the experts tell me I’m wrong about this, I still think [Gordon Brown] might be sorely tempted to call a snap election in the autumn, both to establish his own authority and to wrong-foot David Cameron.”
Thank goodness I chose my words with such consummate care. “Might be sorely tempted” … well, I think that’s been borne out by events, whatever he decides this weekend. So my hat, and the pie, will remain uneaten. Sorry, boss.
And although I never thought I’d say this, I will admit to just the slightest pang of nostalgia as my train rattled out of Blackpool North station on Wednesday, almost certainly for the last time. None of the parties has any plans to return to Blackpool: the hotels and the Winter Gardens are now simply too decrepit, as in truth they have been for years. But the sun shone in Blackpool this week, and the famed golden sands were, well, golden. Bye bye, Blackpool …