The Conservative Party still hasn't appointed its new PR director, and it shows. Standing in for now, in a bid to win over public opinion, is Lord Bill Deedes, aged 89, who has agreed to speak from the platform in the Tories' defence. The last time he was called on to help out the party was during the Profumo scandal in 1963.
We've been told that IDS is looking to America and the Republicans for inspiration, and has signed up PR guru John McLaughlin for a reported £1m. McLaughlin has been credited with changing how the conference is run, but that didn't stop the traditionalists from insisting that the opening of the week's events stay the same. This beginning is actually a church service with the delegates singing hymns and a vicar giving a sermon at the rostrum. The 99 per cent white, over-65s lap it all up, totally oblivious that they may just be upsetting the majority of the British population who aren't Christians. If any one single event symbolises just how out of touch the Tories have become, this is it.
The conference managers have changed the timetable for debate, as Amanda Platell reported last week (PRWeek, 4 October). The idea was to force their big policy announcements onto the early TV bulletins. Unfortunately they forgot to tell the BBC, so the Tory conference will now get less live coverage than the Lib Dems'. They even screwed up the policy announcements by briefing a whole load of them all in one go. A drip feed to the hacks would have been far more effective.
John McLaughlin has a huge task on his hands. The problem is that you simply can't gain political credibility with PR and spin alone. There has to be substance to your philosophy and credible policies to back it up. At present the Tories have neither. They don't even have a charismatic leader to compensate for this.
Because of the mess they were in, IDS panicked and their great new policy announcements were bought forward. He sensibly didn't want to launch them too soon before the next election, in case they come under too much scrutiny and have to be ditched. The result is half-baked policies that clearly haven't been thought through. Their policy on schools is a joke. Giving people £5,000 to send their kids to Eton couldn't have been designed better to show how out of touch the Tories are. Their conference slogan 'Putting public services first' could easily read 'Putting public schools first'.
The Tory leader, in announcing the new policies, said this was the 'unfinished business' of the Thatcher revolution. Given that all the Tories' problems stem from 'voices of the past', as IDS himself put it, evoking the memory of Thatcher is a huge mistake. Labour strategists would gladly pay a fortune for Thatcher to tip up in Bournemouth to remind voters of what they are missing.
In a chinese eaterie in Bournemouth I took part in a discussion with leading political hacks. The majority of those present thought the Tory Party was finished for ever. Even at their worst Labour still had the solid rock of the trade unions behind them. The Tories have nothing except a dwindling band of supporters whose average age has now reached 67. I keep asking the question, what are the Tories for? No one can give me an answer.