Page last updated at 15:23 GMT, Saturday, 28 March 2009

Tory supporters' guarded optimism

By Adrian Browne
BBC News

David Cameron sitting between George Osborne and Cheryl Gillan
The party faithful hope David Cameron can take the Conservatives to power

Mingling with the party faithful at the Welsh Conservative Conference, you're reminded of how politics has changed.

Having attended quite a few such events over the past decade or so, they offer a glimpse of a party's underbelly.

It is possible that one day a party leader may take an accidental dose of truth serum and admit "the game's up - we're as far away from power as ever".

Or, conversely, divulge that "the government's made such a mess of things we'll sail into Downing Street, provided we do a bit of hard work and keep our mouths shut about the tricky stuff".

What we tend to see instead, of course, is staggering optimism from political leaders, however good or bad their standing is in the opinion polls and the general public mood, about their prospects, combined with dire predictions about where their opponents are heading.

There are limits to the extent to which you can spin a party conference, though.

John Major
The party limped along after the ousting of John Major by Labour

One previous Welsh Tory gathering I recall was at Cardiff City Hall within a few years of Labour's crushing victory over John Major's Conservative government in 1997.

The imposing surroundings of the city hall seemed only to emphasis that this was a party limping along, seemingly bewildered by the world around it.

One must take care not to be ageist in any way, but I felt more youthful than I had at any time since I'd left school.

It was pretty clear, on the basis of those turning up in those days, that up and coming, ambitious young people keen to see if they could carve out some sort of future in politics did not, on the whole, see the Tory party as their fast track to the dizzy heights.

This weekend, at the Swalec Stadium in Cardiff, much has changed.

Yes, there are not too many rows of seats, so any risk of camera shots of empty ones are neatly avoided.

Yes, there is quite a bit of talking up of how very seriously the Conservative Party is taking this conference, and Wales for that matter - spin or substance - take your pick.

But younger people, as well as the older party faithful who kept the blue flag flying as best they could during the wilderness years, are clearly back in the Tory fold.

To my deeply unscientific eyes, it would appear that there are many more people aged somewhere around 30 or so than in the past.

Conservatives logo
The Conservatives say it is now for change

There are also those of more senior years, with maybe a bit of a gap amongst those aged in between - perhaps reflecting the difficulty Conservative recruiting sergeants had during those difficult times.

Politicians you speak to here tell you that, yes, things are looking positive for the party, but there is a long way to go before Conservatives will be sitting around the Cabinet table.

Echoes of Tony Blair's warning of "no complacency" in the run up to the 1997 poll.

But is there a chance the road to the election might not be quite as long as most of us are anticipating, at least in terms of time?

One senior Conservative figure suggested that everything tended towards the prime minister playing the "long game", calling the General Election around May next year, except for one factor.

Might the prospect of the UK unemployment tally reach three million as polling day nears, encourage Gordon Brown to "go earlier" to avoid the headlines that such an eventuality would bring?

Probably not, but it is an interesting thought.

As we approach European Elections in June, and a General Election within 15 months, there is a resolute mood about delegates here and a guarded optimism about party prospects.

There is also a feeling that, should the party succeed and David Cameron become the next prime minister, the economic situation and state finances could be such that any new Conservative government would be very lucky to enjoy anything like the honeymoon period that Tony Blair's new Labour government did after 1997.

The irony is, that whichever party is popular enough to win the next General Election, could find itself deeply unpopular again within a relatively short period.

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