- Maybe, just maybe, Angela Merkel will stir from her troubles, fix her gaze on Brexit, decide that No Deal would rock the stability of Europe, talk round Emmanuel Macron, and use the separation of goods and services in Theresa May’s Chequers plan as the basis of a deal.
- Perhaps. But almost no-one at this Conservative Conference believes it. Pro-Softer Brexit and Harder Brexit Ministers alike all but concede in private that the EU won’t negotiate on the basis of the Prime Minister’s proposals.
- That gives this conference a strangely unreal air. Theresa May will pretend until Thursday that her plan is alive when it seems to be dead. Tomorrow, she will wrap Chequers in the Union Flag, denounce a second referendum, say that Britain is ready for No Deal, and criticise those discourteous continentals.
- A majority of Party members present don’t want to wreck the Prime Minister’s big week, and are happy to pretend along with her.
- A minority care less about May’s week than the country’s future, as they see it. But their campaigning has a weird lack of bite. After all, you can’t Chuck Chequers if the EU has already chucked it.
- No wonder the main hall hasn’t been full for some of the big name speeches. ConservativeHome’s sense, as we prepared our own conference programme, is that some Ministers and MPs have decided to visit Birmingham briefly or not at all, and that Parliamentary attendance is down a little.
- The vacuum is being filled by jostling Ministers. Jeremy Hunt is seen almost to have deployed one of the favourite acronyms of some of those who comment below the line on this site: EUSSR. One take is that he is trying too hard. Another, buoyed by his showing in our recent survey, is that his stock is rising.
- We pleaded with Cabinet members to deliver speeches that are more than soundbites separated by full stops. At least two have obliged. Philip Hammond’s speech yesterday was a proper argument about the future. And Dominic Raab’s thoughtful offer will have done his aspirations no harm at all.
- Ruth Davidson is being deployed as the Prime Minister’s human shield – as yesterday, in her speech to the conference; as on Sunday, when she was the star of a photostunt with May involving a baby gift. Party managers are hoping that the Prime Minister picks up some of Davidson’s glamour by association.
- Davidson laid into Boris Johnson from the platform, indirectly. So has the Chancellor in an interview, directly. So have some Tory MPs, both on and off the record. Much of this is a co-ordinated push against the Prime Minister’s most prominent Brexit critic.
- Some of those other critics, by the way, have been having a positive conference. Because of the pressure on Johnson from Downing Street and CCHQ, David Davis and, in particular, Jacob Rees-Mogg have been able to make their case on the fringe with little pushback from the party hierarchy.
- Johnson’s critics say that his recent publicity barrage – a big piece in the Daily Telegraph on Friday; an interview with the Sunday Times; a staged photo this morning – has been overblown and counter-productive. We will see.
- At any rate, his speech on a ConHome platform today is one of the big events of the conference. Watch Sajid Javid, however. He, too, is speaking at one of our events (earlier). Javid seems to have an immigration announcement saved up for his conference speech later. That’s intended to take the shine off Johnson a bit.
- The official response to Jeremy Corbyn’s LeftFest last week is a single word as the conference slogan: it’s “Opportunity” – a pared-down version of “Opportunity for All”, an old John Major-era classic. It’s a safe choice, and May could do a lot worse.
- But no-one much will be watching from home. Because the collapse of Chequers has drained the conference of drama, little of it, save perhaps Johnson’s self-projection, will cut through to the great unengaged British public. Nor will most of the debate about the Party’s future policy direction.
- One bracing turn of events for Downing Street is that there’s not much talk about a leadership challenge. By the same token, though, Ministers and MPs present are looking forward to a post-May era. Rightly or wrongly, many expect her to be gone by this time next year.
- Johnson is mocked for his obsession with bridges. Javid spoofed it on Twitter. Davis dismissed it. Davidson biffed the idea. But the theme has its uses. This conference itself is a kind of bridge – or, to borrow a local theme, kind of a spaghetti junction, conveying the Tories from the known past and troubled present to an unknown future.
- It is less something of its own than a passage between two things: the pre-Brexit Conservative Party, the one that will press on to the conclusion of the negotiation and the end of next March, and what we expect to be the post-Brexit one. It is “between two worlds, one dead,/The other powerless to be born”.
Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson stands on the brink of humiliation, but reaches for a recycled joke
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