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Last Updated: Friday, 29 September 2006, 14:08 GMT 15:08 UK
Cameron: PR man or policy wonk?
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News Website

In a phrase that will set alarm bells ringing among Tory traditionalists, David Cameron says he wants this year's Conservative conference to be "different".

David Cameron
David Cameron wants to show he is a man of substance
It will be interactive, open to new ideas and new directions. And, we are told, it will look very different.

There will be guest speakers from beyond Conservative ranks - not the first time that has been tried - including Big Issue founder John Bird and Liberty's Shami Chakrabati.

And there will even be regular votes on the conference floor, which is a novel idea for a Tory conference, on a series of "hot topics".

Subjects to be tackled include "should marketing to children be banned?" and "alcohol does more harm than drugs".

Votes will be cast, X Factor-style, with electronic handsets, although what happens to the results once they are in is less clear.

There will also be sessions based around Dragon's Den, the hit BBC2 show in which budding entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a panel of venture capitalists.

Just gimmicks?

In the Conservative version, would-be Tory MPs will be able to pitch their policy ideas to a panel, led by Ann Widdecombe, for possible inclusion in a forthcoming manifesto.

And all this will be under the banner "A New Direction" and against a backdrop of the party's new oak tree logo.

In other words, the conference will reflect former PR man David Cameron's character and leadership style.

Conservative party logo
The Conservatives have a new image

And therein lies the potential pitfall - will the conference lend itself to accusations of being all style and no substance, just gimmicks and no guts?

Mr Cameron plans to address these concerns head-on in his big conference speech, his team have said.

It will be his first conference speech as leader since he held this same rally in the palm of his hand just a year ago, blew David Davis off his leadership trajectory and set himself on course for victory in the battle to replace Michael Howard.

He promised then to modernise the Tories, even hinted, at a private dinner with journalists, he believed he was the "heir to Blair".

And since becoming leader in December, he has started the transformation of the party's image and increased its standing in the opinion polls, giving members real hope they may just be on the way back to electoral success.


What he has not done is give the party any substantial policies. There has been plenty of talk about the environment, sharing the proceeds of growth between tax cuts and investment and, most recently, distancing the party from the Bush administration's Neo-Conservative foreign policy agenda.

Mr Cameron has, perhaps deliberately, infuriated some traditionalists in the party with his talk of showering love and understanding on young troublemakers - the so-called "hug-a-hoodie" strategy - and moving away from Thatcher era economics and social attitudes, branding himself a "liberal Conservative".

Ann Widdecombe
Ms Widdecombe will lead Dragon's Den panel
But it is still not clear whether he has entirely convinced grassroots Conservatives or, despite a modest poll lead over Labour, the wider electorate.

Specifically, it is not clear whether he has yet succeeded in re-branding the Tory Party and casting its "nasty party" image into the bin.

Labour 'paralysis'

The current strategy, and what this conference will be about to a certain extent, is not so much selling the Conservative Party but selling David Cameron.

Party bosses want people to recognise, approve of and ultimately buy the Cameron brand first.

They will then glue that branding all over the old Conservative Party and, so, transform it into something the public will like and vote for again. It's called brand extension in the trade.

When will we see a determined and strong opposition?
Lionlen, Salisbury

But Mr Cameron also enters this conference week knowing that the apparent paralysis that has gripped the government and the Labour party over the recent weeks will not last forever.

And when it does come to an end, the new Labour leader will waste no time in launching an all-out assault on the new-look Tories.

Public relations

It was notable that one of the biggest cheers Tony Blair got in his farewell conference speech was when he ridiculed the Tories' "built to last" slogan, declaring: "They haven't even laid the foundation stone".

"If we can't take this lot apart in the next few years we shouldn't be in the business of politics at all," he added.

Mr Cameron will attempt to lay that foundation stone over the coming week in Bournemouth and, he hopes, create an edifice which will withstand the full force of Labour's future attacks.

He will focus on the work of his six policy groups - on social justice, democracy, national and international security, quality of life, reform of public services and economic competitiveness - which are due to report next year.

He will not be bounced into making policy announcements "on the hoof," his team insists, but he will be eager to stress there is more to his leadership than a clever public relations exercise.

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