Conference season heralds challenges for main parties

Party conference speech Image copyright PA
Image caption Movers and shakers in Westminster are braced for challenges during the party conferences

That grand finale of the English summer, the August Bank Holiday is over, heralding the approach of the next main event in our great annual pageant: the party conference season.

Not so long ago the conferences looked like extensions of the bank holiday itself: resorts like Brighton, Bournemouth and Blackpool had them almost all to themselves.

Now, though, the one point on which the three main parties can agree is that "we have to bring the conferences to where the people are".

And this year, that means some of the cities which have seen the worst of the summer riots.

Coalition tensions

The horrors visited on the streets of Birmingham will weigh heavily on Liberal Democrats assembling in the city.

The council here is controlled by a Con-Lib Dem 'progressive partnership', sometimes portrayed as a local version of the coalition government.

Its Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader, Councillor Paul Tilsley is Brum's answer to Nick Clegg.

Cllr Tilsley was a high profile spokesman for the city from that shocking first Monday night when he was in the police command centre, to the funerals of the three young men killed in Winson Green when 20,000 people from our various ethnic communities came together in mourning.

In the aftermath of the riots, Councillor Tilsley will usher Nick Clegg into the city's International Convention Centre, and into a controversy which threatens yet more tension between the coalition government partners.

In the aftermath of the riots, the 'get tough' approach on sentencing, evictions and benefit cuts has emboldened Conservatives like Bill Cash MP (Con, Stone), to renew their demands for Britain's commitment to the European Human Rights Convention to be scrapped.

But senior Liberal Democrats including their former leader Sir Menzies Campbell insist that commitment is sacrosanct.

Blame game?

Image copyright bbc
Image caption Labour will assemble in Liverpool for its party conference

The English riots will also pose problems for Labour in Liverpool.

Ed Miliband told his party to avoid what he saw as the trap of blaming the government for the trouble.

Having been in office so recently themselves, he argued Labour would struggle to make it stick.

Ken Livingstone is about the only high profile figure to have broken ranks by connecting the riots to the cuts, but party conferences do have a habit of testing party discipline to the limit.

Finally the Conservatives will gather in Manchester, another city which endured the turmoil of rioting and looting.

Drive to detoxify

So far, the Prime Minister's backbench awkward squad on the right of the party have warmed to his new robust approach on law and order.

But how long can he reconcile this with his continuing drive to modernise and detoxify the Tory brand?

Image copyright AP
Image caption The Conservatives will gather in Manchester, a city which endured the turmoil of rioting and looting

A government that has backtracked already on forestry sell-offs, on parts of the Lansley health reforms and, more recently, on the BBC Arabic Service, is under yet more pressure after the riots to add elected police commissioners and police budget cuts to that list of U-turns.

All this, and we have not even mentioned the state of the economy and the threatened autumn and winter of strikes.

"May you live in interesting times," said Confucius.

Perhaps we're beginning to understand why he meant that as a curse.