Testing week that no party leader wants to mess up
George Eustice, Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth, on the challenges of conference season.
This week marks the start of the month long party political conference season. The chronology never changes. The unions go first, the Lib Dems next week, then Labour and the Conservatives come last. Some years ago the Conservative Party sought discussions with the other parties about rotating the order so we didn't always come at the end. The advantages of being last are that you have heard what everyone else has to say and you have more time to change your plans during September. But the downside is that the journalists who report on conference are sick to death of them by the time they arrive at their fourth one and the weather starts to deteriorate which can cast a shadow over the mood.
During my time as David Cameron's Press Secretary, the party conference was the most demanding week in the calendar. There are so many things just waiting to go wrong and it's hard to maintain a news agenda on your own terms with so many journalists looking to make mischief and hoping there might be some slip up to give them a good story to write. With just 18 months until the next General Election, the tension in the air will be higher for all three parties this year.
Labour will face questions over their funding links with the unions.
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Ed Miliband has always relied on a lot of financial support from the unions but there have been rows over the influence they exert as a result so he has been trying to create some distance.
The problem is that he may simply end up with fewer affiliated members but more dependent than ever on direct donations agreed by the union bosses.
Ed Miliband has faced much whispering about his leadership over the summer and his key challenge this year is to establish himself as a Prime Minister in waiting. My own view is that he squandered the first few years of his leadership by focusing too much on opposition and not enough on the sort of policy development that might have made his party look like a government in waiting. It is hard to regain your footing in those circumstances and time is running out.
For the Lib Dems, the prevailing speculation will likely be over which way they would jump in the event of another hung parliament which is never a comfortable question for them. Their success at the ballot box has always depended on the perception that they are an alternative to the two main parties but questions about future coalitions mean they can end up looking like a side kick to the two main parties instead. They will want to set out a distinctive agenda of their own and do what they always do well: creating distance between themselves and their Conservative coalition partners on unpopular policies while trying to claim the credit for those policies that are popular.
Finally, it's the turn of my own party, the Conservatives. We have been leading a government for three years that has had to take some very tough decisions. Some people respect that and most understand it but we have undoubtedly made enemies too. There is much better news on growth and the economy and unemployment is now falling. Expect the party leadership to make this better news a core part of their message. As ever for a governing party, events are always out to get you and the current crisis in Syria and the parliamentary debacle of a couple of weeks ago may still be in the air. There will also be the usual speculation about the threat posed by UKIP.
While I didn't always enjoy conference, it does represent a major opportunity for every party leader because it is the one time when they can guarantee coverage on the TV news bulletins every night for about four nights in a row. A party conference can therefore be a game changer but it is not a week you want to mess up.