Stormy clouds and gloomy polls gathered over Blackpool. Backbenchers plotted to overthrow Iain Duncan Smith. But shadow education secretary Damian Green told them to cheer up. "Smile - we're the happy party" was his message to miserable colleagues, according to the Independent on Sunday, adding that "voting Tory should be a pleasure, not a duty".
His schools passport certainly was designed to awaken such pleasures.
"Vouchers to buy education of parents' choice," cooed the Daily Telegraph, while the Daily Mail hoped it meant, "We'll open more grammar schools."
However, this was no "grammar school in every town" - the policy that sealed John Major's election triumph in 1997 - but a passport in six big cities if you're lucky.
And Mr Green wasn't even reviving the assisted places scheme, which subsidised private education for those who could play the system. "You couldn't use it to help offset the cost of sending your child to Eton," he warned, wiping the smile from some Tory voters' faces.
Instead, parents might set up their own schools or send their kids to cut-price private schools, something The Times claimed a Democratic mayor in Milwaukee had used to improve local schools. Yet talk of a "pound;3,500 passport for every pupil" seemed premature. Michael Howard, the shadow chancellor, had not only torpedoed IDS's planned tax cuts, he'd stymied Green's wheeze too.
There would be just pound;400 million a year, including capital and revenue spending - around 1 per cent of the total schools budget. None was new money - it came from cutting existing initiatives. Having spent the year lambasting Labour's funding crisis in schools, Green was clearly determined to have his own. That crisis was partly caused by ministers' attempts to put school standards fund money into the general pot, forcing schools which lost out to make cuts. Hardly surprising then that Bognor Regis backbencher Nick Gibb wasn't smiling. "The Conservative party should be insisting on teaching methods that are working," he sniffed in the Guardian, "rather than seeking to pretend the answer is merely to introduce some small degree of choice."
Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett 1997-2001