Images courtesy of Anthony Webber
The Conservative Party conference ran from 29th September to 2nd October 2019 in Manchester.
With Boris Johnson attending his first party conference as leader of the Tories, the attendance was up on last year and the mood was buoyant and expectant.
Members had been in the doldrums for some time, during the dying period of Theresa May’s premiership, suffering greatly in elections and in polls.
The recent disagreement in Parliament over the prorogue issue had seen the refusal of MPs to suspend sitting for the conference. There was thus a situation where a number of MPs were unavailable or were shuttling back and forth from Westminster in order to attend.
This did mean that there were some changes to meetings and to the advertised speakers, but on the whole the potential disruption was minimal and barely noticeable.
The main conference hall hosted the key speakers and debates, which were ongoing throughout the three and a half days. There were over 42 political training meetings which met the different needs of the party faithful, but in fact would have been of use to people of any political party.
There were also over 430 fringe meetings and receptions by many organisations, political bodies and politicians. In fact it was difficult to decide on which ones to attend, as the range of subjects covered was varied and interesting. There were in fact over 56 exhibition stands in total.
One of the benefits of attending political conferences is obviously to promote your interests. Another reason for attendance is to benefit from new political ideas. One such idea was blatantly there at Manchester in the form of their fare-less bus services in the centre of Manchester. As a proponent of such services over many years, it is pleasing to see that they are no longer wrongly attacked as socialist, but as the norm.
Fringe meetings are the ideal places to explore new political idea or old ones in a more refreshing light. One such topical meeting was entitled “Fixing the care crisis: The state of Elderly Social Care”.
I took the trouble to inform the meeting about how Guernsey (where I come from) has solved this problem since 2003 through the implementation of citizens paying additional 1.9% NIC contributions.
This funds care home and care at home costs for individuals and they only have to pay their state pension, with no need to sell assets or homes and no means testing involved. There was a great deal of interest in this.
Although there were many issues of fascinating interest brought up at the fringe meetings, there was a feeling that none of them really mattered until Brexit is sorted out. That is the reality of the three and a half year delay in implementing the Brexit decision – that nothing really important has moved forward politically because of the stalemate situation the country is in. It seems as though everything is on hold until Brexit is finally resolved, and this applied to the previous other party political conferences as well.
From the point of view of the average Conservative party member, the feelings expressed to me that that unless Boris Johnson can deliver a good Brexit by 31st October, then both he and the party are effectively toast. It is huge challenge for the Prime Minister to deliver on, but it must be done in order for the Conservatives to thrive on the electoral front.
It seemed that everyone was waiting for Boris Johnson’s closing conference speech, and it actually went down very well to a packed audience. There were disappointed members who could not get in due to numbers and lack of space.
His speech did inspire the party faithful, and the conference ended on a very positive note, something missing from the last couple of Conservative conferences.
However, it was only when the applause died down and time was taken to analyse his speech, that it was apparent that it did not offer any new policy initiatives at all.
It simply offered a catch up on putting right some of the damage the government’s own austerity programme had created.
The speech was full of attacks on Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party but it will take more than just these attacks, some of which were justified, to win the next election. The public are wise to the political parties trading insults and could well be partly immune to them.
The lack of policies could have been deliberate. These could come closer to whenever the next General Election will be.
There are also signs that the Conservative Party is becoming more environmentally conscious and that will help attract the ‘green”’ vote which it needs. It almost seemed as though Boris’ new partner had had a hand in this policy shift, and there is much logic to it.
The policy on Brexit was put across so well it was almost like a mirage. On closer examination, it appears to be little different to Theresa May’s deal, with the Irish backstop simply re-packaged and no changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.
When words phrases such as ‘compromise’ and ‘the right thing to do’ are used, it is sensible to be on guard as to what they may lead to. Many warned that Boris Johnson would attempt a clever stitch-up of the deal which has been on the table so far, and they were disbelieved as purveyors of doom. Now, it seems they might have had a point. The Brexit Party could reap the benefits of any perceived Conservative Brexit sell out
Already Fishing For Leave have come out against it and significantly for the Conservatives with an election looming, so have The Brexit Party. In fact party Chairman Richard Tice has stated that you cannot trust the Tories and if necessary The Brexit Party will fight them in every seat.
Over the next few weeks, it will become clearer what is happening regarding Brexit, but the current situation is very concerning. It is now being proposed that one of the home nations, Northern Ireland, is going to effectively have two borders and the political assembly there is going to be given powers on trading and sovereignty which should only be with the national UK government and Parliament. It is an exceptionally dangerous precedent to set, which will be taken full advantage of by the separatist SNP.
What adds to the concern is the fact that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who have been regarded by the UK leave voting public as the saviours of Brexit, are in serious danger of losing some of this popularity.
It is a very risky strategy to give the Northern Ireland Assembly these powers over the UK, and as Northern Ireland voted just 40% to leave in the 2016 referendum, it is bordering on being crazy.
It would be pretty amazing if the DUP’s support for this Brexit strategy was not at least a little shaky, and that would also apply to the strong group of Conservative Brexiteer MPs who can normally be relied upon to hold their ground. Perhaps they are hoping that all this is just a clever wheeze and that the UK will leave the EU on 31st October without a deal.
What is certain is this – if the Prime Minister continues down this path of compromising further, he will lose the support of the British public.