Opinion: Leader - Conference season retains wide appeal

If it's autumn, it must be party conference time, that period of the year when the worlds of lobbying and political PR decamp to the seaside for limp sandwiches, cheap wine and plotting.

There has been much written about the decline of party conferences as policy-making forums, much of it accurate. And yet their enduring ability to draw in interested parties, lobbyists, hacks and sponsors suggests their value both as an influencing opportunity and testing-ground for novel communication techniques is yet to expire.

It is the Liberal Democrats who are currently trying out tactics that so obviously break with their historic practice. They have attempted, for example, in every media opportunity granted to them over the last week, to reclaim the word 'tough' from their political enemies. This has been a classic case study in the attempted manipulation of language to create rather than merely describe reality, as well as a refreshingly frank admission that their reputation, to date, has been intolerably 'weak'.

The Conservatives appear to have all the tactical skills Labour's PR operation refined in the early 1990s - advanced leaks of their speakers' phrases timed to spike the guns of whoever's announcement is due that day. They also appear to have credible spokespeople, appreciated by TV cameras, available whenever they are needed. When memories fade of their last spell in power, and when they pick a leader with the ability to charm on and off screen, they will pose a meaningful threat to Tony Blair.

And for Blair himself, it is true that, in strategic communications terms, he has reinforced a lot of the key messages his advisers would have wished him to project - 'I do what I think is right', 'I lead by example,' 'I am not swayed by the temporary concerns of others'. But there is a fine line between these qualities and accusations of being pig-headed, refusing to listen to valid criticism and picking fights simply for the sake of being on the front foot. It is perfectly obvious that in the last two years the PM has slipped from the first set of qualities to the second.

His few days of cheap wine and plotting should be taken as a chance to win back lost friends.

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