The red, blue and gold balloons in Bournmouth, Manchester and Brighton are slowly deflating. The leftover cava is draining away. The conference season has closed. As we survey the litter of policies, pledges and rhetorical tropes scattered by the major parties in countless speeches, can we scavenge anything meaningful? Was anything important said? Has anything changed?
Not according to the polls. In most of them the Conservatives still hover at around 40 per cent, Labour are stuck at around 25 per cent and the Liberal Democrats languish at 19 per cent. That's more or less where they were before the circus began. The obvious conclusion is that the game hasn't changed. Gordon Brown did enough in his speech to suppress open questioning of his leadership, but not enough to have a chance at the next election. David Cameron did well, but not well enough to create real enthusiasm for his party amongst the electorate. Nick Clegg and Vince Cable made slip ups and failed to make any ground. But the polls are misleading. In truth there was a clear winner in the conferences. The Conservatives have emerged strengthened, immeasurably so (which is why you can't see it in the poll data).
It's not that Gordon Brown did badly. His speech started off well, with a clear attack on the Tories for opposing the fiscal stimulus measures which have been internationally adopted and approved. But from there it deteriorated. For one thing there was too much in it, a familiar Brown failing. The long list of mostly uncosted promises missed the public mood. It sounded both over-familiar and faintly unreal. He left the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, to deliver most of the bad news. Strange to say, but there wasn't enough of it. His plans to tackle bank bonuses and halve the deficit in four years needed more detail.
By contrast the Conservative conference was far better coordinated. With the fair media wind in their sales and The Sun at their back, Cameron gave a speech focusing on his "vision". It was completely free of content and full of effective rhetoric: "climbing the mountain", "view from the top". It was successful because his Shadow Chancellor had already done the hard work in his speech, setting out measure after measure which would cut the deficit. There was just enough detail to convince bond investors that the Tories mean business. But the presentation was cleverly balanced; the freeze on public sector pay won't apply to those earning less than £18,000 a year.
The speech has received favourable coverage and not just in sections of the media owned by Rupert Murdoch. The Economist and The Financial Times both described it as a brave gamble. It was brave, supposedly, to ignore the example of John Smith, who promised a tax increase at the 1992 Labour conference and went on to lose the election. But last week it wasn't really a risk; it was the right move. Not only does it create an obvious mandate for the Conservatives to take painful measures should they win the next election, but it also spiked the guns of Labour's most effective communicator: the Business Secretary Lord Mandelson. His performance a few days earlier had been the undoubted highlight of his party's conference. But the thrust of his speech: "David Cameron has been pursuing a strategy not of real change, but of concealment" has been parried.
The favorable media response to Osborne's speech should cause dismay amongst Lib Dems. They said many of the same things a week or so earlier to such little effect. A public sector pay freeze, scrapping tax credits for higher earners, cutting NHS bureaucracy, reducing the number of MPs, raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 - it was all there in Vince Cable's speech. Plus they threw in scrapping Trident. But instead of congratulating themselves (which is what you're supposed to do at conferences) party members set about rubbishing Dr Cable's 'mansion-tax' proposal. A 0.5 per cent annual levy on homes worth more than a million pounds was "codswallop" according to, well, themselves. What really bothered them was not the idea itself, but the fact that they hadn't been asked about it. It seems this party, more than any other, is uncomfortable with anyone showing leadership.
The similarities between the Lib Dem and Tory budgetary proposals are not the only areas of overlap between the parties. If you actually compare the policies announced at the conferences, there is a remarkable amount of shared ground. But conferences are not really about a detailed comparison of policy. They're about the TV cameras and the column inches. They are a chance to say the right thing at the right time. In this respect the Conservatives showed the kind of form that should serve them well when the campaigning begins in earnest. Whatever the poll gap is now, expect it to widen when the cameras start rolling.
*At a glance: key economic policies *
Halve the deficit over 4 years
Remove public pension tax relief for higher earners
Raise top rate of income tax to over 50 per cent
Raise National Insurance by 0.5 per cent
Reduce the number of MPs
Freeze the salary of top public servants, including judges, NHS managers and MPs
Create 250,000 new "green" jobs
Free child care for 250,000 low income families with two-year-olds
Teenage parents to be provided with shared supervised homes
Free personal care for the elderly at their homes
Cancer patients to have tests done within a week of seeing a GP
Reduce the deficit by £7 bn p.a.
Save £3 billion a year in Whitehall "bureaucracy"
Freeze public sector pay for one year, excluding those on less than £18,000 a year
Raise the age of state pension entitlement to 66 in 2016
Scrap "child trust funds" and tax relief for families earning over £50,000 a year
Scrap inheritance tax for those whose properties are worth less than £1 million (but not until 2011)
National Insurance exemption for new businesses for their first 10 employees
New welfare assessment scheme: newly trained officials to assess whether those on incapacity benefit can be moved on to job-seeker's allowanc
The Lib Dems
Mansion Tax: 0.5 per cent annual levy on the value of homes above £1 million
End tax credits for higher earners
Cut NHS bureaucracy
End child trust funds
Reduce the number of MPs
Cut Whitehall bureaucracy
Freeze public sector pay
Raise income tax threshold to £10,000
Create 10,000 new University places and 50,000 new college places
Guarantee young people employment within 90 days
Invest in insulating homes, new "green jobs" and public transport