When Sorry doesn’t seem to be the hardest word – Callum Laidlaw reports on the UK Conservative Party Conference

 

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They say a week is a long time in politics and what a week it has been for the British Prime Minister. A week after the start of the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, it has been a rollercoaster that appears (for now) to have returned to the start.

Where’s that? Well Theresa May looks likely to remain Prime Minister, but one vulnerable and with difficulty in asserting authority over her government, her party, the opposition and possibly the EU, as Brexit talks gather pace. But over the course of the week this position went from being worst to best case as events within and out-with Mrs May’s control sought to create a Conference that she’ll no doubt wish to forget.

On Sunday night the mood was upbeat at the Scottish Conservative drinks reception. Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, was in fine fettle after a very well-received speech which called for a less London-centric U.K, pitched as much to Darlington as Dundee and fuelling speculations of a future beyond Holyrood. But the Prime Minister was still the star turn. She seemed flattered by the cheers, the singing of happy birthday, somewhat giddy even. Something told us this was no longer the reception she was used to getting.

And so it turned out that at other fringe events, where (unlike in Scotland) the snap election was seen as an unmitigated disaster, there was real anger. Anger with the Prime Minister, but interestingly more anger at the election apparatus, at things largely outside the PM’s remit; social media, inaccurate polling and an un-costed, uninspiring manifesto. UK Party Conferences are as much, if not more, about these fringe seminars and debates, and associated wine-fuelled gossiping, as they are the set-piece auto-cued speeches in the main hall.

Brexit also dominated fringes and late-night conversation and in particular the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, who has called for a ‘Glorious’ Brexit, seeming to challenge the more cautious approach taken by Theresa May and her Chancellor Philip Hammond. Many saw it as leadership positioning, responding to polling which suggested that despite several slip-ups, Johnson remained the party members’ most popular choice of successor. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the eccentric back-bench MP and darling of the right, was also a huge draw and effectively ruling out a leadership bid but with a message clearly aligned with Johnson’s.

With each fringe that called into question the Government’s approach on Brexit (and plenty also argued for a much more gradual, incremental approach too) there came an undermining of the PM’s authority, which coupled with the election led a number to speculate on the virtue of a change at the top. It must be said though, that from personal experience the majority of ordinary delegates certainly did not want a leadership contest that could divide the party nor an election that threatened the chance of a hard-left Labour government.

So how could the PM avoid death-by-a-thousand cuts? Well a barn-storming speech to close the conference would do that. Put her back in the driving seat, deliver some clear, credible and hopefully popular policies and address the election and the criticisms of her leadership.

It started so well. Instead of being warmed up by a senior politician (it was Ruth Davidson last year) with the risk of being upstaged, her team made the sensible decision to use young new MPs from the 2017 election. They were a diverse and engaging crowd from Ben Bradley, the 28 year old who took Mansfield for the Conservatives for the first time ever to Paul Masterston and Kirstene Hair, two of the 12 new Scottish Conservative MPs, and finally Kemi Badenoch, the impressive young black MP for Saffron Walden and whom veteran Labour MPs thought was one of their own when she first entered Parliament.

The stage was set for Theresa. The second woman Prime Minister and second woman Conservative leader, a modern, modernizing Prime Minister. She came in to pumping music, she started strongly and she apologised, showing real emotion and humility for an election campaign ‘too scripted, too presidential’. She said she was ‘Sorry’. One thing Conservatives like is good manners, the apology worked. The hall was on her side.

Then a man appeared at the front with a bit of paper, a P45, the slip given to those made redundant, claiming to represent Boris Johnson. Surreal and awkward, she took it in good grace. The hall was still on her side, the prankster drummed out, standing ovations given to her joke. Then the cough came.

A cold can be a terrible thing but it is perhaps especially terrible when you are making a 60 minute speech to a convention centre and the country at large. Again the hall willed her on, through her lozenge taking and water gulping, wanting her to make it, concerned but ultimately proud she made it through.

If manners maketh the man for a Conservative, so too does duty and resilience. Soldiering on was the right thing to do. It demonstrated leadership. Leadership of a different kind to a hugely polished and panache driven performance, like Cameron’s famous no notes speeches in 2005 and 2007. It showed that the Prime Minister, criticised for being ‘robotic’ and an ‘ice maiden’ was ‘human’. A quality so often admired in contemporary politics and so often linked to ‘authenticity’ a label often applied to Jeremy Corbyn by commentators and activist.

Johnson in contrast had delivered a perfectly pitched and surprisingly polished performance that stressed his loyalty to both the PM and Chancellor and enthused the hall. But those gathered in the hall were his supporters and in the conference bars many saw his volte-face as disingenuous and unashamedly careerist. But with similar follow-up in the Sunday papers, in light of reports of a reshuffle, he’s sticking to a line that the party must unite ‘and turn its fire on Corbyn’. While Grant Shapps, the former Party Chairman, claimed to have a growing list of MPs wanting May to go, when outed by party Whips the numbers simply weren’t there and Shapps was left looking like a deserted mistress.

What’s next then? Well some identified as supporters of the Foreign Secretary, like Nadine Dorries MP, are turning their guns on the Chancellor, seen by some as someone who is too negative about Brexit. Claiming his scalp in a Cabinet reshuffle while saving Boris’s would be seen as a coup.

That said, there’s growing grassroots anger as what is seen as political game-playing at Westminster that puts personal gain ahead of the country, that revels in politics as a parlour games – witness reports that Johnson decided to lead the Leave campaign due to personal antipathy against David Cameron. This outrage could well be capitalised on by the purposely ordinary Prime Minister who this Sunday was attending church and canvassing in her county constituency. If change does come at the top of the Conservative party it may take some time and could very well favour someone untainted by current manoeuvres and willing like May to prioritise the sensible over the sensational.

 

Callum Laidlaw

Callum Laidlaw

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