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Westminster watch: After party

It’s time for party-conference season, but when and where will the real talking begin?

"EVENTS DEAR BOY, EVENTS" is the oft-quoted line from Harold Macmillan, in response to being asked by a journalist what was most likely to blow a government off course. The same applies to columns. The first draft of this column talked about the summer period as an opportunity for each party leader to review the past year, recharge their batteries and then focus on the coming year. Then came the riots.

It is hard to recall an event in UK politics where the agenda was so swiftly changed, and we can expect urban issues, gangs, and police cuts to be top of the agenda for some time. What we need to consider is whether there is space left for anything else.

The September/October period in politics is usually summed up by one word: conference. There are two parts to party conferences – that which happens on the conference floor (speeches and so on) and the real business in the conference hotels and bars. It is at these fringe meetings, receptions, dinners and 3am drinks where the various wings of the parties battle for dominance. So other than heightened rhetoric over rioting, what can we expect?

For the Conservatives, it's a chance to regroup after maulings over NHS reform, News International links, poor growth figures and the rioting response. It is a  chance to steady the ship and give Cameron time to reassert the sense of mission – ironically, the riots and his ‘broken Britain’ mantra might well help in this.

But, away from the floor, the rightwing continues to agitate and take advantage of a weakened PM. The riots will have added momentum to a shift right in terms of criminal justice – who will want to stand up now and talk about how “prison doesn’t work?” – but it is likely that the right will also fire several broadsides over VAT and the 50p tax band. For business travel we should keep an eye on individuals such as Graham Brady MP (chair of the 1922 Committee) repeating calls for fairer aviation taxation, and Jo Johnson MP (Boris’ brother) continuing to demand a long-term rethink of hub airport capacity in the South East. We should also expect the burgeoning anti-high speed rail (HSR) campaign, being driven by the Conservative grassroots on the proposed route, to use the conference as a platform to bleed support for one of the biggest infrastructure projects currently on the books.

In Birmingham, the Lib Dem leadership may well be happy with their efforts at watering down NHS reforms, coming through the News International row unscathed and progressing Lords’ reform; but the grassroots will not have forgotten their drubbing in the local elections, their poll standings and the fact their coalition partners scuppered the chance of electoral reform, so will be looking at other areas where they can assert their authority.

In Liverpool, the Labour Party will see Ed Miliband’s fans claiming that their man has found his feet as leader and will be looking to his speech at the conference to confirm this… but there is still a sizeable rump of the party that, away from the conference hall, will raise doubts that the party has a clear direction. The policy review process means fringe events and debates may have a greater influence on future policy and we should be watching for clear signs that the 0pposition is still holding the line regarding airport expansion in the South East, as well as HSR.

While the BBC coverage will be on the set-piece conference speeches and debates, the real politics will be taking place in the bars at 3am in the morning. It was ever thus.