Many commentators anticipated that this year’s Conservative Party conference would be downbeat affair, due to the unexpectedly poor showing in the General Election and the setbacks that afflicted the Government over the summer.
It is certainly true attendance was down on previous years. One source suggested that as many as 70% of Tory MPs opted not apply for a conference pass, in contrast to the 2015 gathering when Manchester Central felt like it was bursting at the seams in the wake of the party winning its first overall majority in 23 years.
For delegates and lobbyists, this offered some benefits. It took less than twenty minutes to get served at the bar of the Midland Hotel. It was possible to attend the fringe events that one wanted to go to, rather than be turned away due to meeting rooms being over capacity. Even the protests outside the conference venue felt low key, in part due to a more effective security operation by Manchester Police. Delegates were largely spared the abuse and barracking they endured last time the Conservatives came to Manchester.
For those who spend the full four days at conference, there is often the danger of retreating into a bubble. The media reports might have suggested that the conference was a hotbed of infighting and despondency, but the atmosphere was more contemplative. “Flat, but not miserable”, was a fair assessment offered by one delegate.
The conference will likely be remembered mostly for the disasters that befell the Prime Minister’s speech. That would be unfair. There were no game changing headline announcements, and the party failed to shrug off the malaise that has afflicted it since the election. However, attending fringe events and chatting with MPs allowed one to build a more subtle assessment of the conference, which suggests that while the Conservative Party is troubled, it is also in the process of transitioning to a new generation and thinking about policies that might shape how the Tories will be viewed five years from now.
The following are six “big picture” takeaways from the conference:
1. The party recognises it has a problem with key voter groups, but is still in the process of shaping a policy response
Growing student debt, a lack of affordable housing and a tougher jobs market for graduates, combined with younger voters’ hostility to Brexit, have left the Conservatives struggling to reconnect with key demographics.
Although attempts have been made to formulate policies that address the economic insecurity and frustration felt by millennials and those living in the private rented sector, several of the announcements on issues like housing were seen as too tepid or merely replicating what Jeremy Corbyn is offering. More work needs to be done to make free market solutions relevant to professional and aspirational voters, as well as those on lower incomes. On the big challenges like student debt, the party needs to be bolder and embrace more radical solutions, rather than tinkering at the edges.
During the conference, London MEP Syed Kamall held a series of discussions on how the Conservatives can win in the capital. Tim Montgomerie chaired a panel that looked at bold – and often counter-intuitive – proposals for a new Tory housing policy.
While the party isn’t there yet, it is encouraging that it is at least facilitating these discussions.
2. Political debate is becoming more polarised
While the conference did not see a repeat of the disgraceful scenes from 2015, when left-wing protesters threatened and spat at delegates and journalists, there were still plenty of unpleasant incidents. Conference goers were welcomed on Sunday morning by a banner reading “Hang the Tories” draped from a bridge in Salford, along with effigies hanging from a noose. The #cpc17 hashtag on social media was flooded with insults and personal abuse. There is a tendency amongst younger activists, particularly on the left of the political spectrum, to not just disagree with their opponents, but to object to their very existence.
The Prime Minister mentioned this during her conference speech, when she called out Labour MPs who referred to Conservative parliamentary colleagues as “the enemy”, and channelled the memory of Jo Cox in calling for a more respectful and tolerant political discourse.
3. The next generation of MPs is becoming more assertive
The headlines were dominated by Boris Johnson’s manoeuvres against the Prime Minister, and the Foreign Secretary remains the favourite to succeed Theresa May. However, he leads a crowded field only by a small plurality, and there is a growing desire for new faces and for the next Tory leader to come from the 2010 or 2015 parliamentary intake.
On the fringe, relatively new MPs like James Cleverly, Kemi Badenoch and Nadhim Zahawi offered thoughtful policy solutions which suggested that they were better able to communicate with voters than their more experienced colleagues. The authenticity and personal integrity of Jacob Rees-Mogg meant the unlikely phenomenon of Moggmentum was very much on display at conference.
This generation of MPs is frustrated and exasperated at the indiscipline and infighting in the Cabinet, and we should expect them to be more assertive in the coming years.
4. The conference format needs to change
The current set up of party conferences, with carefully scripted keynote speeches, is designed to look good on television and ensure everyone stays on message. In other words, it’s boring.
That the fringe was packed with worthy but dull panel discussions on policy areas like data protection and recycling might have pleased corporate lobbyists, but it is no longer enticing for ordinary party members, particularly as the cost of attending conference can be greater than a city break in a European capital.
This time the party made limited experiments with ways to make the conference more engaging for members, offering delegates the opportunity to make three minute interventions on the main stage. One fringe event even conducted a mock ballot for the position of party chairman. Future conferences need to make better use of apps and technology to provide more interactivity and give party members the opportunity to shape policy.
5. It’s difficult to break out of an established narrative
The very visible problems with the Prime Minister’s speech – her cough and persistent hoarseness, the disruption by a prankster handing her a fake P45, and the collapse of some of the background materials – were hardly her fault. It was always unlikely that a conference speech would reset her political fortunes, regardless of how well it was delivered.
However, it is unfortunate that these mishaps commanded the most attention, rather than the announcements on an energy price cap or organ donation. It shows that when the media narrative has decided that you’re failing and on the way out, it can be incredibly challenging to turn it around.
6. Brexit means Brexit, and possibly two more years of Theresa May
The media reviews might have been scathing, but the conference doesn’t change the good arguments for the Prime Minister to hang on for the next two years. The Article 50 clock is ticking. A leadership election would take weeks, if not months, out of the Brexit negotiations. Any contest at this stage would possibly see the number of candidates reach double figures, making it difficult to put the party together again. There are few people filled with enthusiasm at the prospect of a Boris versus David Davis run-off. There is a growing consensus that the next leader needs to be a fresh face from a new generation.
The last few years have shown us that nothing is certain, but at this stage it is still not unrealistic to expect Theresa May to remain in office long enough to see Britain out of the EU in March 2019.