If Brexit is national suicide, then what does that make the Conservative Party?
The conference has a cult like feel, with members and leaders repeating Brexit incantations; nonsense words that will seal our fate. Hanging from the ceilings at Tory conference are banners saying “Get Brexit Done”. Every minister taking to the podium parrots those words.
It’s a message made more difficult to hammer home by the fact that it’s being pushed by a Prime Minister generally perceived to be a philandering liar. Get Brexit Done is being somewhat drowned out by another story which can be captured in three words: “Johnson Alleged Groper”.
If you’re not up to speed, journalist Charlotte Edwardes claimed in her Sunday Times column that Boris Johnson squeezed her leg at a Spectator magazine lunch sometime in the late 1990s to early 2000s: “His hand [was] high up my leg and he has enough inner flesh beneath his fingers to make me sit suddenly upright.” Johnson has denied the allegation and rejected concerns that it might get in the way of his key message.
At conference events, the tawdry spectacle of ministers leaping to the knee-jerk Prime Minister’s defence is matched by the reaction of Conservative members whenever a journalist asks about this. Every question I witnessed on the alleged groping scandal has been met with exasperated groans and shouts of “irrelevant”. Such is the Tory obsession with Brexit now that conference is a sort of upside-down bizarro world, in which not talking about Brexit will be met rolled eyes and tutting, like the worst dinner party on the planet.
That said, they don’t like it when journalists ask about the correct topic either. A meeting titled “Why the Conservative Party must stand for freedom post-Brexit” apparently wasn’t referring to a free press asking awkward questions. The most passionate standing ovation I’ve seen all conference was given after a man said he had been approached by various media outlets, “and all the questions I’ve been asked are around, do I trust Boris, do I think he’s going to do it? We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t… I’m getting really, really fed up of hearing the left-wing bias from the press”. The room erupted. How dare anyone question the great helmsman?
Brexit is being seen in almost millenarian terms, with the 31st of October to be the beginning of a year zero. For the Bruges Group, anti-EU, Thatcher-fans who have long been on the UKIP-y end of the party it is “The Moment of Truth”. Everywhere, people are solemnly talking about the magnitude of the national moment, and the potential that could be unleashed, with very little clue of what they’re on about.
It’s near impossible to avoid analogies with The Apprentice when it comes to the Tories and a month out from a potential no-deal Brexit, it’s clear that many of the cabinet still haven’t got a bloody clue. At an in-conversation event with Liz Truss, the trade secretary spoke of how the new opportunities Brexit will enable us to “reignite” our historic ties with places like Australia, because our produce is better than the stuff other countries make.
“I think every piece of British cheese has comparative advantage in the global market,” she said. “Is there a finer cheese than Stilton?… No there isn’t. And my argument has always been that when British products go onto the global market in a free and fair way they are going to win because people are going to want to buy them.”
Cue and awkward silence from three buyers from a major supermarket and Karen Brady rolling her eyes and pointedly writing some notes to take into the boardroom later on in the episode.
Much of the fringe certainly feels like a cheese dream, with panels sponsored by the kind of opaquely funded right wing think-tanks from which ministers recruit their special advisors, discussing whether austerity really happened, or how the government shouldn’t do anything – everything is probably best left to market forces. There’s a fair bit of concern that setting a deadline to get to net zero emissions might be “unrealistic”, presumably meaning "difficult for rich people". For some, the most important issue on the planet is how to save capitalism from climate change.
It’s hard to find much zeal for getting to grips with the non-Brexit issues of the day. For instance, you might expect that a party lead by a man who said women wearing the burqa look like “bank robbers” might have a discussion about challenging Islamophobia. Instead here was a panel called “Challenging ‘Islamophobia’”, with the word Islamophobia in scare quotes, kind of like in Friends when Joey was “sorry" to Ross for “accidentally” proposing to Rachael. There was no misunderstanding here, though, as the panel reportedly spent their time contesting the meaning of the word “Islamophobia” and doubting whether it really is racist.
Meanwhile, Chancellor Sajid Javid’s big idea is a “Brexit Red-Tape Challenge”, with talk of “liberating” business from “overbearing bureaucracy”. The last time the Tories played fast and loose with “red-tape” led to the the downgrading of safety concerns that set the stage for the Grenfell tower fire. Still, that was a whole two years ago, so time to move on and put some more lives in danger.
Anyone who refuses to drink the Brexit Kool-Aid is an outcast. That’s the lot of Dominic Grieve MP, one of “the 21” who lost the whip after voting to block a no-deal Brexit, and who is now the subject of Downing Street probe into “foreign collusion”. At a meeting of the Conservative Group for Europe, he nailed the lie at the heart of the conference: “With no-deal you’re not 'getting it done' at all. You’re about to start on one of the most difficult periods in the United Kingdom’s relationship with its closest neighbours and trading partners that is going to dominate every day of our waking lives at Westminster for several years to come.”
Whatever your opinion on Brexit, this is clearly and obviously true. Deep down the government must know it, and much of their strategy will be to blame everyone else for the coming disappointment. A lot of people don’t want to hear it, however, and Grieve’s speech was accompanied by heckles and interruptions – rare for a Tory conference. The cult mindset is a powerful one, and unbelievers are to be scorned. The Conservative Party has become a hostile place for those who don't aren't approaching the 31st October gleefully looking forward to the great freedom that follows finally Getting It Done.