The banners are coming down, the train back to Euston is packed and the Conservative Party Conference has drawn to a close. Many accused Labour last week of acting as if they’d won the election, but the Tories have been equally guilty of behaving like they’d lost.
Theresa May’s speech made for excruciating watching as she struggled with a persistent cough that left her hoarse and looking shaky on stage. She persevered, however, and managed to land a few policy hits.
All in all though, it was the performance of a PM a long way from the peak of her powers who might well be filing the prankster’s P45 sooner rather than later. When the stage actually began to fall apart, the speech became almost comically steeped in metaphor.
An MHP panel of Pete Digger, Ian Kirby and Lisa Hunter look at a party in Government, but not necessarily in power.
How do you solve a problem like Boris?
by Pete Digger
Weary delegates will be heading home from Manchester after what can only be described as a lacklustre few days. In the absence of any official figures, it’s hard to prove, but it certainly felt as if attendee numbers were significantly down.
Whilst exhibitors and ‘corporate’ numbers seemed in line with recent years, the conference hall itself had space for all but the biggest of the major speeches, suggesting that party members and activists had largely chosen to stay away.
They didn’t miss a huge amount.
This attendee picked up on palpable fury amongst MPs at the latest antics of the Foreign Secretary, amid reports of backbenchers texting him asking him to be gone. The difficulty is, many delegates felt that this is exactly the response he was seeking to provoke. What to do with a problem like Boris?
One couldn’t help feeling that the capacity crowd for his speech to conference was attracted more by curiosity to see the last huzzah of a once great act, rather than by a belief that he represents the future of the Party.
Away from the main conference hall, activity on the fringe was more lively. Organisations such as the Tory Reform Group and Bright Blue have been reinvigorated as a result of outcome of the election.
It is at this level that the penny has dropped that radical new thinking is required if the party is to have any chance of surviving in government against the rising tide of Corbyn’s apparently unstoppable momentum.
In a new departure, fringe events were invariably scheduled to take place in parallel with activity in the hall, without impacting on turnout.
Ruth Davidson solidified her position as the real draw of the conference fringe. Meanwhile a re-styled Amber Rudd also attracted the interest of some of the more earnest young members.
And that is one element that never changes. Maybe it’s age, but the insufferable braying hoorays barging to the front of the bar made the Midland Hotel even more unpleasant than usual.
No matter, Brew Dog, just outside the conference zone, made for a very pleasant alternative, and was open until 1am.
Until next year.
Pete Digger is a Managing Director at MHP
Swapping Manchester soap for Westminster reality show
by Ian Kirby
In the early hours of this morning, political journalists marked the close of the conference with a rousing karaoke rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” led, as ever, by the Sun on Sunday’s resident Scouser, political editor David Wooding.
As the empties were cleared away, most spoke of their relief that they could finally get away from the Tories’ soap opera and get back to Westminster.
All were frustrated that their efforts had been relegated deep inside their newspapers or well down the running order on the evening news.
The Tories simply aren’t making news.
The most serious problem this conference has identified is the fact that the vast majority of the electorate don’t really care about what the Tories have to say.
No substantive policies, no five year plan, nothing for a reporter to get their teeth into apart from the endless low-level soap opera of Boris Johnson vs Theresa May. An energy price cap and a reheated pledge to build more council homes didn’t change that.
The total absence of substance is leaving reporters scratching their heads and filing stories like this:
“Man up – Tories having a nervous breakdown” – The Sun
“Wailing Phil made one long for a gin and hemlock” – Daily Mail
The sight of a weakened leader withering before the eyes of her activists is usually a gripping political spectacle – think Iain Duncan Smith or the Miliband Brothers’ battle. But this year it simply wasn’t news.
In Manchester there was a weary acceptance that this is the current reality for the Conservatives and there’s little on the horizon that would indicate any change is coming.
Ian Kirby is Head of the MHP Media Unit
Move along, there’s nothing to see
by Lisa Hunter
Set against the backdrop of devastating headlines from Las Vegas and the biggest repatriation of UK citizens since the War, conference ‘happened’. There was no great drama, but equally no great headlines. Delegates moaned about a lack of ideas and described the mood as ‘flat’, but the PM and her team would have been happy with the result, until this afternoon.
In my day, it was the PM’s prerogative to cherry-pick the best departmental announcements saved for conference, and spend five days pulling rabbits out of hats and explaining shiny new policy. There was none of that.
A few bits of policy made some lacklustre headlines, but nothing that got delegates in Manchester talking, let alone excited. I’d rather have put my Secretary on State on Marr with nothing to announce than make him explain away a half baked policy like May was expected to do with the tuition fees ‘announcement’ on Sunday. It didn’t set her up to look like a PM in control. Her announcements on housing and energy today were not really the crescendo people were hoping for.
Boris was a conference talking point but not, probably, in the way he had hoped. Ministers and MPs I spoke to were all united in wanting to be ‘united’ going forward. They were unimpressed by the timing of the Foreign Secretary’s intervention, whilst not necessarily in total disagreement with the content of it. As Mrs May just about survived a difficult conference, she might actually owe Boris a thank you – he’s possibly achieved what she’d been struggling to since the ill-fated election, and united the cabinet. For the next few weeks at least…
Lisa Hunter is an Associate Director at MHP