There was no riot. David Gauke was not torn limb from limb by infuriated Eurosceptics when he appeared this morning in the ConHome tent.
The wreckage of the ConHome marquee does not now lie in a bedraggled heap outside the Midland Hotel, with fire officers picking through the sodden canvas to see if they can find any more survivors, or at least gather up what pitiful personal effects can be rescued – a signed copy of an early pamphlet by Daniel Hannan, blamed unjustly for setting the trouble off; a column by Boris Johnson which included some remarks in questionable taste, triggering a national debate which raged for several days; even a monocle which a dodgy antique dealer will by next week be advertising as having been worn by Jacob Rees-Mogg himself.
No, Conservatives do not riot. They do not, at least, riot during the party conference. Shouting, drinking too much and staying up far too late are as bad as it gets.
And neither Rees-Mogg nor Gauke, both of whom took questions, in succession rather than together, in the ConHome tent, is an incendiarist.
Rees-Mogg used humour, including self-mockery, to carry people with him. He was, admittedly, before his home crowd, recording an episode of the Moggcast, his ConHome podcast.
Paul Goodman pointed to a recent headline in The Mail on Sunday, above an extract from Michael Ashcroft’s biography Jacob’s Ladder, which described Rees-Mogg as “The World’s Most Unlikely Sex Symbol”.
Rees-Mogg agreed that this “doesn’t sound like me at all”. He also mentioned his own recent book,The Victorians, a work not received with universal enthusiasm, and said he believed it could still be found in some bookshops, “perhaps second-hand”.
He urged his listeners to imagine what was like to be a Remainer, with “30 days to hold on to the thing you most love”.
This accounts for their “fanaticism”, and their “very strong” rearguard action: “They will throw any bit of mud at Boris Johnson they can find.”
The House of Lords has treated the British people, who voted Leave, with disdain: “The Duke of Omnium could not be more condescending to his lowliest tenant.”
The Moggcast will be published on this site, so need not be quoted extensively here. He ranged with playful seriousness over the whole scene, defending freedom of speech, expounding the principles of the British Constitution, declining to comment on the Supreme Court judgement – “too raw” – and expressing an amused sympathy for the Liberal Democrats, caught between the desire to stop Brexit, and the knowledge that if they go into coalition with the Labour Party they will be destroyed.
On the great question of whether to readmit the 21 Conservative MPs, including Gauke, from whom the whip has been withdrawn, Rees-Mogg said he ‘always believes in politics in being as generous as you can possibly be’, but ‘you cannot have a situation where people are trying to put Jeremy Corbyn in charge of the order paper’.
When George Osborne was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he would “uncork the Gauke” whenever the Commons was infuriated by some measure, and lo, by some indefinable mixture of sympathetic understanding and studied dullness, Gauke would restore tranquillity.
Gauke did the same in the ConHome tent, though he was not dull. There was standing room only when he entered, punctual to the minute, to take questions from Professor Anand Menon, Director of The UK in a Changing Europe, joint hosts of the meeting.
The identity of Gauke, and of his conservatism, came under scrutiny. He said he had entered Parliament as a Eurosceptic: “I’m not someone who whistles the Ode to Joy in the shower and I don’t look good wearing a beret.”
He observed in a pained tone that the report in The Mail on Sunday that Downing Street is investigating “foreign collusion” by Remainer MPs “leaves a nasty taste in the mouth”.
In Gauke’s view, “we’ve got to find a way of lowering the temperature in the debate. We shouldn’t impugn everybody’s motives all the time.”
He added that “the chances of getting Paula Sherriff” – the Opposition MP whom Boris Johnson recently accused of “humbug” – “to defy a three-line whip to get Boris Johnson out of a hole are not high.”
By giving an “implausible and inaccurate” justification for proroguing Parliament, Johnson had provoked the system to “bite back”.
Instead of trying to harden divisions, Johnson should “change the strategy, change the strategist” – i.e. sack Dominic Cummings.
But Gauke added that although he does know Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem leader, “reasonably well, I am not a Liberal Democrat”.
Nobody shouted “Yes you are!” The temperature in the tent was by now appreciably lower than when he entered it, and it would be surprising if anyone in the audience doubted his sincerity.
Let other parties tear themselves apart if they wish to. The Conservatives don’t want at this fraught juncture to fight each other, a point the Prime Minister may understand better than some of his critics do. The eerie atmosphere at this conference is the calm in a party which still hopes to come back together.