George Eustice: Make or break time for party leaders

The party conference season has started and the stakes are high. The relationship between political parties and the media at conference season is rather like that of a horse trainer breaking in a new horse. Get it right, as David Cameron did in 2005, and you will be charging towards victory. Get it wrong, as Gordon Brown did in 2009, and you will be trampled.

George Eustice: Make or break time for party leaders
George Eustice: Make or break time for party leaders

It is the most powerful opportunity in the political calendar to secure broadcast coverage four days in a row. It has the potential to be a game changer. But it is also a threat. The media pack like nothing more than a catastrophe and will be reluctant to take a party line when there are so many 'noise-offs' to report instead.

It is a wearing experience for those whose job it is to try to make the headlines turn out right. A key element is predicting what the prevailing media commentary will be. What is the big question they think you face? It is usually quite predictable if you study patterns of coverage and the topic selection for leading columnists in the preceding weeks. Once you know what they will be asking, you either need to harness the prevailing wind in your favour or put together a plan to deal with it.

The question facing the Liberal Democrats this week was whether they were getting enough from the coalition. They needed to demonstrate that they were at ease within the coalition and highlight the policies that were theirs. Instead, the weekend papers were full of crass and defensive attacks on the Conservatives.

The Lib Dems will never successfully differentiate themselves from the Conservative Party because they are junior partners within the same coalition. They need to learn instead to compose themselves and benefit from the policies for which they are voting.

Next week Ed Miliband will face questions about his leadership and will be under pressure to announce new policies, but in order to earn the right to be heard he needs first to reconcile himself with the electorate. Until he has shown that he understands why Labour lost, he will not get traction on his own terms.

George Eustice is Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth and a former press secretary to David Cameron

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