This year’s Conservative Party Conference was a bit of a mixed bag, kicking off with the Prime Minister in the headlines for all the wrong reasons, again. Despite claims that this was the best attended conference, it was distinctly quieter in the hotel bars and around the Convention Centre than usual, with notably fewer MPs around.
The atmosphere throughout the conference was strange too – there was a pretty large elephant in the room, yet everyone was blissfully ignoring it, or at least pretending to. The fact that fewer MPs were there, at least for the full duration, the recent parliamentary (and judicial) defeats for the Prime Minister, who is just 70 days into the job, and the looming Brexit deadline should have been at the forefront of people’s minds, but if it was, it was hard to tell.
In 2017, following the Conservatives surprise Election defeat, the mood was low. This year, ahead of an impending General Election where the party is riding high in the polls, it didn’t feel quite like that, and there was an almost cult-like devotion towards the Prime Minister but beneath the surface it belied a flatness to proceedings. Perhaps that is not surprising, after all, this was not a ‘normal’ conference, not just because of the fact that Parliament was still sitting in London but also because of the feeling a ‘phoney war’ where battle had yet to be properly joined with the Opposition in an all-out Election campaign.
However, despite this, plenty of domestic policies were announced; the kind you might expect from the Conservatives ahead of an actual Election. There were promises to improve infrastructure, investing in roads and rail, as well as a promise to ensure that everyone in the UK has “lightning fast broadband”. There were announcements about additional police officers, with greater stop and search powers, in a bid to tackle crime and the growth of drug trafficking across county lines. The construction of 40 new hospitals was announced (although funding is only allocated for six) as well as commitments to invest in more housing stock. The Chancellor announced that the minimum wage would increase, whilst taxes would be cut.
The main podium speeches were designed to encourage and convince voters that austerity is at an end and show that the UK is open for business, on a global stage. In the main convention hall and across the fringe events, the focus was on opportunity and positivity – Britain’s role in the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ – the message clear – we need to get Brexit done and move on with the domestic agenda (the tagline for this year’s conference was well and truly enforced throughout).
However, the mood was relatively flat – that was until the DUP reception on Tuesday evening. The room was full to capacity, and the energy in there was palpable. This was thanks to whisperings that the Prime Minister might make an appearance, and in the end, he did more than just ‘pop in’. He stood alongside The Rt Hon Arlene Foster MLA, Rt Hon Nigel Dodds MP and Rt Hon Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP throughout their speeches and then gave his own. As the Prime Minister himself acknowledged, he likes to keep an ace up his sleeve, and given that he had negotiated, what he deems a solution to the backstop, with support from the DUP, it was little surprise that their enthusiasm was reflected in the room.
Getting the DUP’s support was vital for Boris Johnson, and if the EU agree to his ‘deal’, or something like it, parliamentary arithmetic may finally be on his side with DUP/ERG and even some Labour MPs representing Leave constituencies now looking like they may support the deal. But that’s a big ‘if’ and his ‘final deal’ has already been met with measured caution by EU leaders.
But, as has proven the case throughout his short premiership, agreement from the EU is not guaranteed nor is support from the House. The Benn Act has thrown a spanner in the works, so unless the Prime Minister can find a loophole, he could still struggle to carry it ‘over the line’. Promising to leave the EU on 31st October “come what may” could further alienate his opposition colleagues in Westminster who have already called on the Prime Minister to temper his language. On the other hand, his resolute promise to deliver Brexit, in spite of the difficulties he is facing, plays into the People versus Parliament idea. The Conservative Party is presenting itself as positive, dedicated to “delivering the democratic will of the people”.
So whilst conference was markedly quieter and perhaps a little flatter than usual, the Conservatives managed to use their conference to launch their election strategy. Even if his first conference speech as leader wasn’t awe-inspiring, he carried the energy, the enthusiasm and the support of the crowds wherever he went. Tuesday night and Wednesday morning felt distinct from Sunday and Monday, but in light of everything going on in Westminster, in Brussels (and in Boris’ past personal life) – the Conservatives will reflect on a largely successful conference and return to Westminster with a renewed sense of optimism. Only time will tell whether that optimism is well placed or not.
Samantha Beggs is an Associate at DRD Partnership in London.