So what is the dominant theme of the Conservative Conference as it meets in Manchester? After the Tories’ shock election victory in May, it should be one of celebration. Party loyalists should be throwing their hats in the air and quaffing even more copious quantities of champagne. But it doesn’t feel like that. The mood is more one of relief at the May escape and apprehension at what might come next.
Not that anyone is seriously worried about a Labour threat to Tory hegemony. Cameron, Osborne and the rest of the Tory high command are doing their best not to gloat over the suicidal error Labour has made in electing a 1980s never was as its leader. The Corbyn takeover of what was until very recently a serious party of power is being variously described as Labour taking to the hills or wandering off the reservation into the wilderness. No one genuinely expects the bearded comrade to last very long, but that will require a bloodbath in Labour ranks with no guarantee the benighted activists will get the answer right next time.
For the time being, at least, politics becomes a purely internal Tory affair, much as it did in the 1980s when Thatcher reigned supreme and – in a mirror image of that era – in the late 1990s when Tony Blair seemed unassailable.
Perhaps that explains the foreboding in Tory ranks. Syria, the migrant crisis, the jihadi threat at home, and Europe. They are all big and intractable problems and it falls to Cameron’s Conservatives, with only a small majority in Parliament, to provide some answers.
The migrant crisis – the spectacle of thousands of people, some genuine refugees, many economic migrants, pouring across the borders of the EU – has provoked a change in the national mood about Europe. Polls show that for the public, immigration is the number one concern and they also show mounting support for a British exit. Judging from his interview with The Sun on Sunday, Cameron has caught this mood, hinting that he might yet lead the campaign to quit if he does not get what he wants from Brussels.
Yet no one really believes it, as underlined by the latest instalment of the Lord Ashcroft book on Dave in The Sunday Times. Cameron is widely seen by his own MPs and ministers as a man reluctant to rock the boat too hard and not given to sudden changes of course. Far more likely, he will secure some modest concessions from his fellow EU leaders and then, next year, embark on mission to persuade his party and the country to endorse his deal.
Meanwhile, the parliamentary Tory party watches and waits. A small group are committed “Inners” and another larger faction are for out at all costs. But at least 200 Tory MPs are sitting on the fence unsure of which way to jump. They will make some noise this week, but the big battle is yet to come.