Party conferences: What's at stake for Clegg, Miliband and Cameron

Ed Miliband at the 2011 Labour conference

Yes, it is that time again, the moment in the political calendar when the denizens of Westminster emerge from their garrets and eyries, their bars and boltholes, and decamp for the airless auditoriums and sterile hotels of Brighton, Birmingham and Manchester.

Three weeks of long speeches and short motions, three weeks of gossip, intrigue and cliche. Repeat after me: it is the most important speech of the party leader's life; he was speaking to the country not the party; the defeat on the conference floor is a devastating blow to his leadership.

And so on and so on.

Party conferences are part of the rhythm of political life, the annual gathering of political party members known variously and archaically as the party faithful, rank and file and grassroots.

Cabinet meeting It's time to escape the confines of Westminster

It is a chance for them to chastise their leaders and be inspired by them, to mix and mingle over cheap wine and stale sandwiches, but above all, to remind themselves of why they are what they are and do what they do, gaining succour from sharing time with like-minded folk who do not think it odd to go out canvassing on a wet Thursday night or spend hours licking envelopes in the often vain hope they may be making a difference.

And there is always the excitement of the leader's speech, the danger of the fringe, and the occasional thrill of the votes.

So, of course, the future of the three largest parties depends more on the economy than on these conferences.

But these three weeks shed light on what they are all thinking and whether they are up for the fight.

Labour

Labour arrive in Manchester with not quite a spring in their step but certainly some hope in their hearts.

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Labour will also, once again, try to showcase Ed Miliband - they know his critics mock the way he looks and sounds”

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They are consistently ahead in the opinion polls, they appear to have won the right to be heard by the electorate, their opponents seem divided and unpopular, and pundits are beginning to contemplate the possibility of a Labour victory at the next election.

So expect a little more interest from lobbyists and businesses and pressure groups at Labour conference as they begin to assess whether the political wind may be changing.

But with more credibility comes more scrutiny. At this conference Ed Miliband will face pressure to set out not just what Labour stands for but what it might do in government.

What is he really going to do to try to fix the economy? What spending would he cut? How much more would he borrow? What is his thinking on reforming welfare, education, health and other public services? The answer to those questions is not at all clear and many in the party will be looking for something tangible to sell on the doorstep.

Talk to Mr Miliband's aides, though, and they say there will be little detailed policy announced in Manchester. Instead, we will be given a greater sense of direction, more of "the country that Ed wants to lead and how Ed wants to lead it". They see the calls for policy detail as a Tory trap, a hostage to fortune that would give their opponents years to trash or copy Labour ideas.

Ed Miliband Ed Miliband will be under pressure to set out what he would do in government

Labour will also - once again - try to showcase Mr Miliband.

They know his critics mock the way he looks and sounds. So they want to use this conference to reintroduce him to voters.

"The more people get to know Ed," they claim, "the more they like him." Unlike Mr Cameron, they note, Ed Miliband has only been leader for a couple of years. They don't - and won't - say this in public but they want to show how they believe Mr Miliband is maturing as a politician, hoping to place the thought in voters' minds that the idea of Prime Minister Miliband is not a ludicrous fantasy.

So Mr Miliband will develop his broad themes of finding a different way of running the economy and how best to promote social democracy when there is no taxpayers' cash to spend. But the test of his speech is clear: will more voters rate him as a leader? And will they have a better sense of what he might do?

The Conservatives

David Cameron will arrive in Birmingham burdened with a party full of doubt and unease.

His MPs are restive and querulous, worried that economic growth remains stubbornly elusive, uncertain that the prime minister and the chancellor know where and how to find it.

The Parliamentary party is bruised after the recent reshuffle, the sacked and the passed-over joining with longstanding malcontents to mutter darkly about plots and leadership challenges if the gloom does not lift soon. Many Tories are beginning to assume that they will lose the next election and are planning accordingly.

So the prime minister's task will be to stiffen sinews and gladden hearts, reassuring his party that there is a brighter tomorrow while warning that the new dawn might take a while to break.

He will insist that now is not the moment to change course, reminding his party of the difficult economic decisions Margaret Thatcher took in the early 1980s that were unpopular but subsequently considered to be right.

David Cameron David Cameron is promising 'leadership in tough times'

Ministers may say privately that there are positive signs emerging in the economy but Number Ten still echoes President Obama's line of taking the "harder path that leads to a better place". The message, aides say, will be that the government has taken some big long-term decisions and it will deliver on them.

At the same time, Mr Cameron and other ministers will give the party the hug they so desperately need, talking tough on crime, Europe, wind farms and spending.

But it will be a hug that won't be so tight that it will upset their Lib Dem coalition colleagues. There will be a reminder of just what else the Tories and Lib Dems together have done to start reforming public services in health, welfare and education. And the PM will make a final grasp for a little Olympic after-glow when he invites Lord Coe onto the conference stage.

Mr Cameron's theme for the week - "leadership in tough times" - is straightforward and obvious.

On the one hand, it is a message to doubters in his party that he is the man to lead the country to the promised land. On the other, it allows ministers to invite comparisons between Mr Cameron and the Labour leader, Ed Miliband.

Number Ten aides point to Mr Cameron's respectable personal poll ratings that seem to suggest that while voters might have a downer on the Conservative Party, they still rate Mr Cameron above his Labour rival.

Expect one or two gentle reminders of what some Tories describe as Mr Miliband's "oddness", and an explicit attack on Labour in general. "They have had it too easy," say Tory strategists. "They have got away with having no policies and that cannot go on."

The big unknown, of course, is what Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson - to give him the full name he so richly deserves - chooses to do.

The mayor of London is due to speak on the Tuesday of Tory conference, squeezed between George Osborne on Monday and Mr Cameron on Wednesday.

The party love him. They love his popularity and his ability to win elections. They love his talk of cutting taxes and taking on Europe, and ignore his social liberalism that is even more metropolitan than the prime minister's.

MPs dismiss talk of a future Johnson leadership but few prime ministers like being upstaged by a potential rival. The official line is that the PM is not worried by tall poppies growing around him. But there are one or two close to him who would not mind reaching for a scythe.

And here's what I wrote about the Lib Dems before their conference...

Nick Clegg arrives in Brighton burdened with poor opinion poll figures, rates that are stubbornly lingering at around 10%.

He comes empty-handed, having abandoned his attempt to reform the House of Lords.

He brings with him echoing questions about his leadership as Vince Cable lets everyone know he is available, just in case. And he will be braced for noises off from one or two former ministers who feel they have lost their jobs somewhat arbitrarily.

Nick Clegg Nick Clegg will emphasise the Lib Dems' achievements in office

So the Lib Dem leader's first task will be to reassure party members that he is not going anywhere, that he is not some Tory patsy, and that the party he leads has a distinctive agenda.

So there will be lots of reminders that it was he who killed off David Cameron's plans for pro-Tory boundary changes. There will be talk, too, of how the party is pushing hard for carbon pricing and wind farms and other green measures in the face of Tory resistance. And he will flag up, yet again, his support for a mansion tax and his opposition to further welfare cuts being demanded by George Osborne. So far, so distinctive.

But at the same time, Nick Clegg will also start trying to remake the case for the coalition.

He will emphasise, yes, the Lib Dems' achievements in office - the millions of low paid people who have been taken out of tax, the pupil premium for deprived kids, the protection of civil liberties and so on.

But he will also argue that the coalition as a whole has achieved a lot too - the progress in cutting the deficit, the consistently low interest rates, the economic stability in contrast to much of Europe, the public sector reforms and so on.

Peers in ceremonial robes Disappointment over Lords reform will rankle with some Lib Dems

He will deploy his ministers to hold "surgeries" outside the conference hall to reassure party members that it has all been worth it. His point will be that the Lib Dems have been disciplined under fire and proved themselves a responsible party of government.

To try to make this argument, Mr Clegg has apologised for breaking his promise not to raise tuition fees, a strategy he hopes will earn him a hearing from the public and perhaps forgiveness from some in his party.

But as ever, Mr Clegg does not make things easy for himself, using an interview in a party magazine to describe his conference as "weird". There is, he says, "a real sense of a tribe coming together...some clad in yellow t-shirts and carrying their hemp bags".

I know we in the media like to joke lazily about sandal-wearing Lib Dems but few expect their party leader to join in.

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