They seem like passengers on the Titanic. The band plays on. The champagne flows. The restaurants are heaving with customers.
Lord Ashcroft’s gloomy polls, predicting a wipe-out in Tory/Labour marginals, are the icebergs on the horizon, threatening disaster in the election next May. Yet the mood among Ministers, the relatively few MPs who have made it to Birmingham and that increasingly rare species, the party activist, is upbeat. This does not feel like a political party contemplating its mortality.
For all that, there is a sense of unease behind the smiles and the bustling activity of the movers and shakers.
After Carswell, Reckless and today a little known deputy mayor of London Richard Barnes jumping ship, whispered conversations are all about who might be next. Like some bizarre parlour games, names of known Eurosceptic Tory MPs are bandied around. Will Farage ruin Dave’s closing conference speech tomorrow by producing another rabbit out of his capacious hat? Are the protestations of loyalty by maverick A or dissident B to be taken at face value? Who will betray us next?
No one knows. So the speculation goes on.
Objectively, the omens are not good. Ukip has bitten deep into Tory support. Labour has a narrow lead bolstered by Lib Dem defectors driven by Nick Clegg’s broken promises. The electoral system delivers an outright Labour victory with 35 per cent of the popular vote. Yet Ministers speak brightly and boldly of their plans to put the country to rights once they secure a second term not hobbled by the ghastly restrictions of Coalition with the Libs.
George Osborne delights the party faithful with plans to scrap the “death tax” on pension pots and vows to squeeze welfare bills further and balance the books in the next Parliament. David Cameron is on fighting form, pledging to halt the Ukip juggernaut in Reckless’s impending by-election. Theresa May vows to combat extremism and keep the public safe. Boris and Hague cheer the troops by ridiculing Labour and Ukip. There is little overt dissent, unlike previous conferences.
Behind the scenes, Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s campaigns chief, briefs that it will all come right in the end. Faced with the ultimate choice between a Cameron or Miliband premiership, the public will shy away from Red Ed and opt for the far more credible figure of Cameron. Many of the Tories who have been seduced by Farage’s roguish charm will come back to the fold.
May be. But it has not happened yet. Nearly five months after their European election breakthrough, Ukip is regularly polling 15 per cent – far too high for Cameron to stand any chance of winning.
And there is a rather curious change of tune among the uber-modernisers surrounding Cameron. Some are suggesting that their brand of progressive Conservatism may take 10 years to come to fruition as the old fogeys attracted to Ukip die out and are replaced by a younger, more liberal generation, perfectly comfortable with a big and bossy PC State, gay marriage, full-time working mothers, multiculturalism, greenery and all the other trappings of a hip, metropolitan world.
Against this background of nervy bravado, Cameron rises to speak today. Many of his followers want him to accommodate the Ukip insurgency by adopting a Farage-like stance on taxes, spending, Europe, immigration and political correctness.
But the rumours are that Dave is not for turning. There will be few concessions to the traditionalists in his ranks. He will stick to his modernising guns in the belief that he will emerge as the chosen one.