Whatever you think of the decision, marvel at the stupendous fact of Brexit, I wrote recently on this site. Guido Fawkes transposed our headline as “Gaze at the glory of Brexit”, which I suppose isn’t far off how I feel about the referendum result. You may not agree with the sentiment, but you cannot deny the fact: the mighty implications of the vote, which has torn down the mighty from their thrones and uprooted 60 years of British policy, tower over this conference like a mountain. Remainer and Leaver alike squint at it, but cannot yet fully take in the view. We are going to leave. To turn Lord Denning on his head, Brexit is like “an incoming tide flowing up the estuaries of England. It is now like a tidal wave bringing down our sea walls and flowing inland over our fields and houses. It cannot be held back.”
Perhaps for this reason or perhaps for some other, nearly everyone I meet tells me that this conference feels different – not exactly more right-wing post-Cameron, but more sober, more purposeful, more buttoned-up – in short, more Theresa May-like. Perhaps Conservative conferences take on the characteristics of their leaders, rather as dogs are meant to look like their owners. But even if this is not so, if people tell each other often enough that this conference feels different, then it will indeed feel different.
Not everything is changed, though. Senior Ministers of the crown are handed lines to take rather as schoolchildren are handed lines to write (or were). We want a Britain not for the privileged few but a country that works for everyone, they chant in unison, like that poor old torn-earned rabbit in Watership Down who has to confess to his thoughtcrimes. It makes one yearn to shout out the opposite – which I suppose would be a country for the priviliged few and a Britain that works for no-one.
Come to think of it, that’s what we would all get were Jeremy Corbyn to win the next election. Those same Ministers are obliged to pretend that they believe it is likely, and work warnings of the possibility into their conference speeches. But they don’t, so their tales of things that will go bump in the night if Corbyn wins fail to chill the spine.
Talking of their conference speeches, one of the reasons Theresa May has dominated proceedings so far is that few Ministers can make even a half-decent speech. Her own was not exactly a rabble-rousing rant, but something rather better: a properly-constructed piece of argument, written in whole sentences. This helps to explain why it was completely convincing, at least as far as her audience was concerned. The only other first-rate address was made by Boris Johnson, who was shoved onto the tail-end of Sunday so as not to distract from the impact of the New Leaderene. Philip Hammond’s speech text was decorated with exclamation marks! Like this! And this! Perhaps this site should refer to him from now on as Philip Hammond!
And talking of Ministers, they have evidently been told not to say anything exciting during fringe meetings. One told me that there has been an “unwritten edict” to this effect, though I am not at all sure how an edict can be read if it is unwritten. Only a few have chanced their arm. It is claimed this morning that George Freeman has said that some farmer subsidies could be handed over to the NHS. But then again Freeman is Chairman of the Policy Board, so to ask him not to think aloud is a contradiction in terms. Maybe this is where that £350 million for the health service will come from.
This is not to say that the conference is a policy-free zone. This morning comes the news that Britain is to derogate from the ECHR during future military conflicts, a move so obvious that one wonders why it hasn’t been announced before. And doubtless it would have been even had the change of leadership not happened. But the big subject of the week so far (other than Brexit) has been housing. I’m told that a section on it was inserted late into Hammond’s speech. Sajid Javid is to issue a White Paper. Which surely means that Ministers want to float proposals more controversial than he announced yesterday. That sounds like more building on other than brownfield.
Back to Brexit. One the one hand, Nicky Morgan suggests that it may incite xenophobia. On the other, John Redwood says that it should happen now. You have to admire Redwood’s brains and Morgan’s sheer determination to keep pressing her view and stay in the news, which shouldn’t be underestimated. But neither diehard Remainers nor impatient Leavers seem to me to be getting much traction. This is doubtless because the emergence of May has been greeted by Party members not so much with exaltation as with sheer bloody relief after the hectic events of the past year or so. She is a known quality. She is trusted. She is One Of Us.
And it shows. She didn’t simply sweep into the ConservativeHome Party, address the assembled masses, and then sweep out again. Instead, she worked the room (although that description may not capture the flavour of a queue of people telling you in turn how brilliant your conference speech was). This is not what we’ve become used to. Talking of which, the Cameroons seem to have stayed away. No sight yet of Nick Boles or George Osborne, who I am told “doesn’t want to rain on anyone else’s parade”.
Finally, Ministers have as I say been told not to say anything exciting at fringe meetings. Come today to hear David Davis test this instruction to destruction, or so we hope, when he is interviewed today by Iain Dale at ConservativeHome’s fringe meeting in Hall One of the conference centre.