This week saw me travel to Manchester for my first Conservative Party conference. I had spent years as a Labour political adviser studying it from afar and criticising it, so it was weird to be attending it in my new career as a political commentator. I am also often attacked by the far left on my own party as “Red Tory Scum” so I figured it was time to investigate the other side. A friend quipped “just pray the Canary doesn’t find out”. Shhhhh.
The first thing I noticed was that the security was much more hard-core around the conference venue than at Brighton for Labour’s conference last week. There were armies of police and stern-looking people in high-vis jackets. It’s possible there were more security guards than delegates. I had to queue to pick up my pass and any paranoia I had about being penalised as a Labour person was quelled when I realised that Scottish Secretary David Mundell was standing next to me, also grumbling. Labour and Conservative conferences share one thing in common. All hotels are hot enough to induce an early menopause. Or maybe it’s all the hot air.
The Conservative conference of course felt very different to Labour in Brighton last week. Labour was jam-packed with lots of new delegates from different backgrounds and heaps of young people feeling drunk with love for their leader (and just feeling drunk).
It was a slightly different atmosphere in Manchester. If Labour was Glastonbury, the Tories laid on a regional meeting of the British Chamber of Commerce or the Rotary Club – a lot of older white chaps in suits looking mildly furious with everything. There was a flurry of youth when Jacob Rees-Mogg swept past me in the exhibition centre. It was like that scene from Catch Me If You Can when Leonardo de Caprio swishes through the airport pretending to be a pilot; it all goes slow motion and everyone stops to gaze at him and he’s flanked by lots of beautiful air hostesses. It was like that, except Rees-Mogg had an entourage of young, identical blond boys in sharp suits – known as Mini Moggs.
The exhibition stand was very different to Labour as well. Labour tends to have a lot of trades unions and charities. Manchester Central was a thriving commercial hub full of lovely stalls selling really nice things like art and scented candles. It was like Space NK meets a nice farmers’ market, including a ginormous tractor with a sign saying “In tractor we trust!”. The only commercial activity at Labour was selling memorabilia of Jeremy Corbyn, which apparently flew off the shelves and supply cannot keep up with demand – a bit like the housing market in London.
Labour had a fair few celebrities, as did the Tories – Jim Davidson popped up on the news to say that Boris was a bigger comedian than he was these days, which we can all agree on. Bear Grylls also popped up dressed as a Scout. I’ll just leave that there.
But one big similarity with both parties is how frustrated many centrist MPs feel. Last week, I wrote about how Labour moderates are in exile and the same feels true of Tory ones. There are lots of good, bright, younger Conservative MPs who are thinking about the big issues facing the country but, because the leadership is so fixated on Brexit and infighting, they are lost on the backbenches or finding solace on select committees.
I chaired a fascinating panel organised by the TUC and Bright Blue, an independent think-tank for liberal conservativism, on what it means to have fair and decent work. This is a vital issue for policy makers to think about in a time of stagnant living standards, the rise of the gig economy and low productivity. One of the most thoughtful contributions was from MP Robert Halfon, who founded the Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists, who talked about how the Conservative Party should refocus itself to be the party of workers and focus on working people’s wages, welfare, skills, rights and services. He’s absolutely right. That is what people out there are talking about.
Instead, his Chancellor, Philip Hammond, gave a speech defending free market capitalism on a day when Monarch airlines crashed, and wasted air time attacking Jeremy Corbyn for being Venezuela which we all know didn’t exactly work during the election campaign.
Mounting a staunch defence of the status quo seemed so very tin-eared – even when people within his own party are saying capitalism needs some improving. Ruth Davidson’s essay on the future of capitalism on the website Unherd is where the modern Conservative Party should be and it is a shame that politicians like Davidson and Halfon are not being listened to.
The Tories desperately lack a positive exciting vision and their MPs and members are crying out for it. I attended an “in conversation” with Liam Fox. When asked about how the Tories can win back young voters with a positive vision of the future, he went straight to talking about trade deals post Brexit. That is not how most young people see things and fails to speak to their concerns, which are about the here and now – housing, jobs, wages and public services.
Nicky Morgan – former Cabinet minister and now chair of the Treasury Select Committee – gets this and when I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour on Sunday, she warned the party about obsessing with Brexit to the point of forgetting about important bread and butter domestic issues. But the Conservatives are blinded by Brexit although, to be fair, that’s mainly because of Boris Johnson and his Brexistential crisis. He’s definitely obsessed with a “jobs first Brexit” – his own.
Although the Tories are in power, they are facing a terrible crisis of conviction and are beset with infighting. Manchester hasn’t seen this much disunity since Noel refused to join Liam on stage.
The Tories don’t really know what they are for anymore other than to keep Labour out. The more they keep squabbling and failing to pursue a modern mission, the more likely we are to see Prime Minister Corbyn.