The Conservatives manage to combine an elderly membership with strength and vigour in the parliamentary party. But it is difficult to ‘have the future in your bones’, as Eric Hobsbawm once put it, if all your joints are arthritic.

Like a Roman army massed beneath a triumphal arch, the Conservative party met under the broad curve of Manchester’s G-Mex centre for its annual conference this week.

The swagger of a party in its imperial phase, as John Harris noted, was palpable. There was a supreme confidence, if not hubris, on display. It is rooted in a well-crafted political hegemony, expertly dissected by Ken Spours in his recent pieces for Juncture and Compass. But it was given tangible immediacy by the sight of the left protesting on the sidelines, their ‘faces pressed to the glass’, as Tristram Hunt put it. This symbolised all too sharply the protest–power dichotomy that now shapes British politics.

By far the most interesting speeches of the week, in the hall and on the fringe, were those made by justice secretary Michael Gove. Ever the most restless of the Conservative modernisers, Gove brought his sharp mind and oral fluency to the subject of penal reform. Already trusted by the Tory right for his Euroscepticism, neocon leanings in foreign policy and record as education secretary, Gove laid out an impeccably liberal case for prison reform. He drew on the recent experience of the Republican right in US states like Texas, where a Christian ethic of redemption, married to the prohibitive cost of mass incarceration, has led to shift away from imprisonment and towards ‘tough love’ community rehabilitation. When he became justice secretary, Gove’s officials gave him an IPPR paper by the leading Republican penal reformer Pat Nolan to read and digest. A pre-conference visit to Texas sharpened this policy agenda. Prison reform has entered the lexicon of contemporary Conservative social reform; liberals are delighted.

In his turn in the spotlight, chancellor George Osborne laid claim to a further swathe of progressive territory, announcing a major devolution of power to local authorities over business rates, and the creation of a National Infrastructure Commission to be led by IPPR’s chair of trustees, Lord Adonis. He even pinched the idea of allowing parents to share some of their statutory parental leave with a nominated grandparent. The strategic prize is the capture of the critical C1/C2 vote bloc: add that to the over-55s and you have a formidable coalition of support.

Paradoxically, the Conservatives manage to combine a shrunken, elderly membership with strength, talent and vigour in the parliamentary party and leadership. The gap between the quality of the Labour and Tory frontbenches has probably never been wider. The Conservatives have eschewed the path taken by the US Republicans, of fomenting a populist revolt within their party membership. Instead, that irruption is now safely quarantined within Ukip ranks. Democratic dissent has not been mobilised, as it has in the Labour party, against the party hierarchy. In this regard, David Cameron’s political strategy is closer to Angela Merkel’s: govern by establishing economic competence and leadership credentials, and close down the space available to the social democratic left by stealing its best ideas – allowing populism to flow away to the outer reaches of the political spectrum.

The key challenge for this political strategy is how to secure the renewal of the Conservative political project. Lacking democratic energy, the party is forced back on its leadership cadre to generate new political and policy directions. Buttressed by an elderly voting bloc and ageing membership, it must continually prioritise security over reform.

For now, it is too dominant to be much troubled by this challenge, but deeper economic and social forces may yet come to destabilise and disrupt its hegemony: Chinese deflation washing back to Europe, the persistence of structural weaknesses in the UK economy, and the unraveling of the British state. And it is difficult to ‘have the future in your bones’, as Eric Hobsbawm once put it, if all your joints are arthritic. Though post-capitalism may be a long time coming, it may just be post-conservative when it does.