What does the Conservative Party want from its annual conference? Three things, perhaps. First, a clear line of attack on Labour. Second, what makes that possible: a coherent and attractive sense of difference, purpose and direction. Finally, what in turn makes that possible, too: unity.
Most advice from newspapers to the Tories, for what it’s worth, suggests how to achieve all three. But a moment’s thought confirms that treading this well-worn editorial route would be a waste of pixels. Brexit is the issue of the day. To act as though it isn’t, and shout about other policy areas as though bawling could cut through the noise, would be as futile as trying to swim up a waterfall. And there is no Party consensus – yet – on what the post-Salzburg approach to it should be. Therefore there is no unity. Instead, there is a vacuum waiting to be filled.
Even were this not the case, laying into Labour convicingly would be difficult to do, for the simple reason that the Party, as Lord Ashcroft points out that morning, has collectively to make up its mind what it stands for in the wake of David Cameron’s “austerity”. You need a positive to set beside a negative. But there is no agreement on what that positive should be. Look over in that corner of the conference complex, dear reader. There you can see our columnist Robert Halfon preaching his populist gospel about capitalism’s failures, and urging the Conservatives to be the Workers’ Party. Now switch your gaze to the other side of the room. There’s Sam Gyimah making the case for capitalism’s successes, and arguing that we must be a Business Party. Now look to the middle. There is Will Tanner, one of Theresa May’s former SpAds, seeking to reinvent modernisation, with the help of Neil O’Brien, Kemi Badenoch, Tom Tugendhat, Chris Philip and a group of other rising Tory MPs.
It goes almost without saying that such debate and discussion is normal – indeed, indispensable. It’s the equivalent of the advice in the ear of the Party’s driver: its leader. If she has that directional sense, there’s can be a constructive trade-off between that counsel and her roadmanship. If she doesn’t, voices are raised, maps and mobiles are pulled back and forth, insults are thrown and the car threatens to screech to a flummoxed halt.
When, two years ago, May last spoke to a Conservative conference in Birmingham, Nick Timothy was in control of the satnav, and the sense of direction was clear. It was summed up in a now famous line in her speech. “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means,” he said. Then, only a few months after her election as Tory leader, she seemed to be firmly on one side of what is the definitional divide in modern Britain and the western world: that between what David Goodhart has called the Somewheres and the Anywheres – the losers and gainers from globalisation. The immobile Somewheres who identify with their local place and their country, and predominately voted Leave. And the flexible Anywheres who uproot themselves more often and have a wider perspective on identity. They usually voted Remain.
Then came the failure of last year’s snap election gambit. Afterwards, Timothy and Fiona Hill exited the car. Ever since, the Prime Minister has, frankly, seemed less sure of where she wants to go. Where Downing Street was once run by Somewheres, the Anywheres are back in charge. Perhaps that is less important than a sheer shortage of numbers. If you lack a majority, people don’t queue up to work for you. Gavin Barwell is trying to do two jobs at once, his own as Chief of Staff and the one where a gap is: that once filled by Timothy, and George Osborne before him, and Steve Hilton before him (at one point), that of chief strategist. The ensuing gaps are filled helpfully or unhelpfully, from Number Ten’s point of view. Helpfully, by energetic Ministers such as Michael Gove and Sajid Javid, who get on with giving their departments a sense of mission. And unhelpfully – returning to the subject of Brexit – by Boris Johnson.
Those tempted to despair should remember Marshall Foch: “my centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent – I am attacking”. If Brexit and uncertainty stalk the conference, those present in Birmingham have a chance not to let this problem go to waste. So the Prime Minister will probably have left Downing Street by 2022? In which case, let’s start preparing now for life afterwards. So there’s no agreement about which road to take? Excellent, as Foch would have said – bring on the debate. Let Halfon and Tanner and Gyimah make their cases. Let Johnson do so too. In the absence of a platform for him in the main hall, ConservativeHome will be providing one on Tuesday. Let Conservatives make necessity the mother of invention, and turn this nervous conference into a festival of creative destruction.
After all, the next election isn’t due for over three years. If it takes place before then, the Government will have collapsed. In which case no-one will remember or much care what happened in Birmingham this week. And why the terror of Jeremy Corbyn? Given the problems the Government faces, Labour should be consistently ahead in the polls by now, and touching 50 per cent.
Prime Minister, we understand if, at this conference, you don’t want to lose face over Chequers. If you prepare to shift to a more Canadian-flavoured position afterwards, we should all live with that.
Ministers, you can’t solve your departmental and strategic difficulties this week. But you can at least make speeches that are more than a collection of soundbites separated only by full stops. Tell those watching what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how it will help ordinary working people. Make an argument. Speak in sentences. You may be pleasantly surprised at the result.
MPs, we’re sorry that rather a lot of you have, for one reason or another, decided not to come to conference this year, or will visit only briefly. Recharge your batteries or enjoy the proceedings – or both, if you can manage it.
Activists, let’s make hay while the sun isn’t shining. From the ashes of present anxieties, a glorious phoenix may arise. Debate, discussion and looking to the future isn’t just the best option we have this week. It’s the only one.