It was the best of conferences, it was the worst of conferences.
Against a backdrop of infighting and political intrigue, what you thought of the Conservative Party Conference very much depended on where you watched it from.
In the hall, it was a subdued affair. Senior cabinet ministers, usually guaranteed a good audience, were lucky to speak to a room half-full. Labour’s Tom Watson, there to witness his counterpart Jeremy Wright, was happy to point out that he drew more people to his own conference speech last week (and he didn’t do one).
Despite the apparent lack of star appeal, the political theatre still played out. With the party riven in two over Brexit, the press talked of ‘daggers drawn,’ and many MPs thinly cloaked a leadership pitch in a banal conference speech.
Jeremy Hunt got the ball rolling with a call-to-arms aimed squarely at the Brexiteers. Though, in comparing the EU to the USSR, he may have slightly overpitched.
Dominic Raab dismissed doubts on his ability to deliver Brexit as “lurid predictions from the prophets of doom,” assuring the grassroots that Britain would not be cowed by bullying Brussels.
Ruth Davidson, oft-tipped as a future leader, cut a more pragmatic figure, above all of the awkward tussling. She urged members to remember that the UK is “a country, of duty, of practicality and of delivery.” The long game, perhaps?
Matt Hancock, a rising star, put himself about a bit too.
On the fringes of power…
But while the platitudes echoed around the ICC’s Symphony Hall, a very different atmosphere was brewing outside. Nearby, as the Home Secretary took to the stage (coincidence?), a long snaking queue that had been forming since breakfast, shuffled in to hear Boris speak.
No empty seats here (though it was a smaller room) and a direct challenge to May’s Brexit was eagerly anticipated.
For those who like that sort of thing, they were not disappointed. It was a brazen pitch for the top job, littered with jokes, straight talking criticism and florid language. His rallying cry to “chuck Chequers!” got the biggest roar of the conference.
An impressive show of force, though the sensible voices say that his real weight may be in influencing Brexit policy, rather than leading it.
However, it was indicative of the party’s divisions that the real excitement was on the outskirts. Jacob Rees-Mogg also had people queueing to hear his alternative vision for Brexit, pleading that the debate move closer to sovereignty and away from a false dichotomy over immigration.
Even, the People’s Vote campaign (not actually allowed in) was a lively presence outside. It seemed that the internal wrangling had no interest for many of the faithful, who sought purer visions of Brexit on the fringes.
May-be, May-be not?
Of course, the sheer number of leadership pitches only serves to highlight the fact that Brexit has split the party too widely to mount any sort of effective challenge. May, though beleaguered, is probably still safe. And many view efforts by ministers to put themselves in the frame as a blatant abdication of responsibility, for individual gain.
There was a lot of talk about a vacuum of policy to counter Corbyn’s conference showing last week. But in her speech, the PM chose to nail her colours to a few strong flagship initiatives:
An energy price cap, lifting a cap on council borrowing for housing, continuing a freeze on fuel duty, a new strategy on cancer. All strong workable policies, she said, not the ill-thought-out “bogus solutions” of Labour.
She praised the Conservative party as one of opportunity, building a country where a man whose Pakistani father emigrated to this country could see his son become Home Secretary.
And faced with accusations of “constitutional outrage” from Boris Johnson, she reiterated her resolve to stand up to Brussels bullying.
This may be May’s last conference speech and as usual, she sought to show that amid all the nonsense, the ship is steady and very much on course. In short, no news here…
In that, it exceeded expectations. Of course, whether the rhetoric matches the reality is another matter.