- Two Conservative Party conferences have happened in Manchester this week. The first has been the one you will have read about, preoccupied by claims about whether Boris Johnson bent the rules for an alleged lover when he was Mayor of London, and groped a journalist when he was Editor of the Spectator (which he denies). The other is the one that has actually taken place.
- Party members present aren’t much concerned with the attacks on the Prime Minister’s private life – which they recognise are part of the campaign to delegitimise him, force an extension and stop Brexit.
- In our judgement, they are more concerned about how to reconcile a) the terms of the Benn Act and b) leaving the EU on time. On the one hand, they are enthusiastic about Johnson, and applaud his sense of direction after the dither and delay of the May years. On the other, those Commons defeats and that Supreme Court reversal over prorogation have left many of them apprehensive.
- The Conference has also been hit by the Commons sitting during it. This isn’t because Labour or anyone else has staged a Parliamentary ambush; but, rather, because MPs have been told by the whips to be either in the Commons or in Manchester. The difficulty instrinsic to tracking which they are in at any one time has had the obvious result: some have bunked off home.
- Johnson’s premiership might have been expected to bring an influx of fervent Brexiteers to the Conference. There is no shortage of them, and the Prime Minister himself has been fangirled – as they say – when speaking at receptions. But the temperature of the conference has been cool. David Gauke, speaking at a ConservativeHome event yesterday, wasn’t heckled even once.
- Talk of girls leads us to make a point. The conference is much younger than it was – there was a time when the staple Conservative representative was an older woman – but seems to us to be disproportionately male. There is a mass of young men in suits.
- Most Cabinet Ministers were denied a set-piece platform speech. Of those that got one, Sajid Javid had the biggest announcement of the week – the minimum wage hike – which further confirmed the Prime Minister’s strategic push towards the lower wage Midlands and North. Jacob Rees-Mogg was a rococo Conference darling. And Nick Gibb the only non-Cabinet member to get a real show of his own from the stage.
- But today is Johnson’s big day. He will be preceded by a show of Conservative women, in an attempt to redress a Party polling weakness: no Geoffrey Cox this year. We wait to see how much his speech makes of his EU negotiating position as it unfolds. The Government seems to be proposing a Northern Ireland halfway house – with the UK fully out of the Customs Union. We will find out soon enough whether it will fly.
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