It’s fair to say the Conservative Party Conference is set to be an interesting one this year. With Brexit talks grinding on, the approach of a widely-expected change in leader, attendant jockeying by ambitious ministers, and the ongoing work of rebuilding the Tory campaign machine, there will be a lot to discuss, both in the main auditorium and on the fringe. The potential for political and personality clashes, always present at a conference, will no doubt be even more heightened than normal.
Detailed planning for the event is still underway, and ticket sales are still open, but I’m told that the indications already show an increased turnout from Party members, and a notable jump in the number of young Conservatives who have signed up to attend.
In terms of the format, the Party is also planning an expansion in the opportunities for grassroots members to take part in the official proceedings. Last year saw the introduction of new slots for members to speak from the main stage (albeit in a quite curated line-up) – this year will, I gather, see those slots double, at least. There are also plans afoot to introduce new ways for attendees to communicate and discuss the conference digitally, though I’ve yet to learn exactly what that will entail.
This is a welcome improvement. It’s easy just to focus on the big beasts and wannabe leaders, rushing about and slinging tidbits to journalists, but our Party’s conference should be about its members. It will always be a national news event, and therefore inevitably features some set-pieces, but the approach of simply expecting grassroots Tories to pay through the nose in return for applauding at the right time was a waste of a good opportunity to generate proper debate and engagement among the membership. As this site has noted before, it meant a conference fringe (including the ConservativeHome marquee) that fizzes with interesting ideas and productive discussion of how to improve Party and country, but a central hall that too often feels like a press conference.
All in all, these changes sound like a step in the right direction. It will still be possible – indeed, desirable – to go further in future, but some progress is certainly welcome.