Aaah … party conference season. Who could begrudge the parties their annual shindigs? Well, most sane people, actually. For the Liberal Democrats, conference tends to mean sandals and self-righteousness. For Labour, it's an orgy of tribalism, which really demands not Prof Michael Sandel but an embedded team of Harvard sociologists to do it justice.
What, then, of the Tory conference this coming week? We can write the media recipe now: some cataclysmic polling over the weekend for starters; a solid roast of party splits over Europe, economic policy, austerity (insert preferred hobby horse); resurgent Labour vegetables; to spice things up, a sudden intervention from the mayor of London; and the final calls for the PM to make the speech of a lifetime.
But the real world provides a more interesting context for the Tories in Birmingham. Take the economy. Conventional wisdom measures economic growth against a benchmark sustainable rate of about 2.3%. However, as economist Andrew Lilico has shown, the benchmark rate may now in fact be far lower, at under 1.5%.
Historically, this reminds us that the Brown boom of 2000-2007 did not merely pump up public, private and corporate borrowing, but also inflated estimates of the true strength of the economy. But it also implies that the UK economy is actually doing better than the consensus would have it, despite the tough times.
If this is so, an attempt by government to lift growth by a Ballsian spending splurge is likely to fail, but will stoke up inflation and reduce resilience against external shocks such as further deterioration in the eurozone.
So item one is the economy, and the lesson for next week is that the Tories need to stick to their knitting.
Item two is about leadership. There are serious people in parliament; more than you might think, if you read the papers. But the two Eds are not among them. Ed Miliband's "one nation" speech on Wednesday was an ingenious and effective piece of rhetoric, which will look silly next week but has secured his position as leader.
However, you know a man not by his words, but by his choices. In the Labour leader's case, the key facts are these: having worked for Tony Benn as a teenager, he entered politics at the age of 23. Before they took it off the Labour party website, his official CV used to cover the first 13 years of his working life in one sentence of 18 words.
As for Ed Balls: in the 40 years between 1960 and 2000, the banks' debt held remarkably steady at about 20 times their capital. In the seven years between 2000 and 2007 it rose to almost 50 times. Balls was a principal architect of the new banking supervisory and regulatory regime introduced in 1997-2000, and stayed at the Treasury until 2007. QED.
To make matters worse, the Eds face the classic dilemma of mid-term opposition. You can't say nothing, but say something substantive and it will be costed and must be paid for. Deploying Sandel this week made the point perfectly. He does have something to say. Unfortunately for Miliband, his views are deeply conservative.
Nevertheless, it would be foolish and complacent for anyone in Birmingham to rely on Miliband. The Conservatives need to get on and make the case with energy and resolve. To do this – item three – they should showcase the reservoir of talent and goodness that exists among many ministers and backbenchers, and in the voluntary party up and down the country. That's the real one nation tradition.
The next election is wide open, but the Tories will need a much broader, and more broadly delivered, message if they are to succeed.[This article originally appeared on the Guardian website on 6 October 2012]