Hello and welcome back to Commons Confessions! We had our jaunt to Brighton with the Labour Party last week and are now in Manchester with the Conservatives. Their conference got somewhat overshadowed by 1) Parliament still sitting (lol) and 2) multiple allegations about Boris Johnson’s behaviour around women (what a surprise).
Still, Tory MPs, advisers, baby activists in suits, journalists, and roughly one million lobbyists gathered for three days of cheap wine and moderately bad chat. Let’s take a look at what really went down, in their words.
THE GENERAL VIBE
“I've only been to one Tory party conference before this one actually, and I was expecting it to be more fractious than I found it to be. It's been fairly chilled out, there's not been any protests in the way that there has been before, which is interesting.”
“Obviously, if you compare it to Manchester two years ago, it's a million times better, right? And I think Boris himself is helping; he turned up four days ahead of his speech for broadly no reason other than to go round all the drinks receptions and whip people up, which let's be honest, is the number one thing Boris can do with party activists. He's absolutely fulfilling his role.”
“The government could collapse next week. There is this calmness but with an undertone of, you know, 'it could all go horribly wrong really, really soon'."
“It's not like the funeral that was 2017; it's definitely not a low like that. I'd say it's pretty standard; I don't think it's particularly buoyant, but neither is it particularly flat. It's just pretty middle of the road.”
THE MOOD OF ACTUAL TORIES
“I was expecting it to be really quiet, just because I didn't think many MPs would actually be here, but because the MPs who are here and the members who are here largely agree on everything, because the rebels have been booted out. It's been a bit of an echo chamber.”
“At previous conferences, ministers have gone to and from the conference venue into their hotel rooms and not massively engaged with membership; this conference is different, we're seeing a lot more interaction with the members and ministers stopping talking to people, and that's going down really well. The membership are in high spirits, and the biggest cheers in the auditorium in any speech have always been when someone said, 'We're going to deliver Brexit on October 31st.' You get standing ovations for that, whereas all the other stuff doesn't necessarily get us a huge amount of noise.”
“I think people worried that it would be quite empty, that there wouldn't be many MPs or ministers. Actually, everyone's here; we have a lot of MPs here. They're going around, they're talking to people.”
“I've talked to Conservative party members and they seemed to be fairly positive and upbeat, but when you start asking them questions, they go, 'I don't know what's going to happen! We might have Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister by the end of this year!' But at the same time they seem to just be fairly calm about what should be quite a terrifying state of affairs for them.”
“A year ago, we were in the dying embers of Theresa May and at the actual government had no ideas, so the fringes were where everything was happening. At the moment, the party activists seem to be very happy with the policy announcements, so the fringes are a bit more subdued in terms of the emotions and the energy and the intellect going into them.”
“What I detect is that people feel that they've sort thrown their lot in with a madman, and they kind of know that's a high-risk strategy, and they're hoping that it pays off. But I think there's a lot of the older guard who feel quite embarrassed by what's been going on.”
“I've basically just been at the bar. I haven't even been in conference yet. All I do is come here to socialise.”
ON THE TORY FRINGES
“Some of the fringes got quite angry quite quickly. There was a Stand Up for Brexit one yesterday with Jacob Rees-Mogg, Steve Baker, and Andrea Jenkyns, there was a lot of rounding on the press. And at one of the immigration event, we got into a dark conversation about whether we needed population control, and whether we had too much of a population already.There's a low level of anger that just seems to simmer over occasionally.”
“My strongest memory at the moment is that I was just at a fringe event on immigration, and the vibe in the room got really tense and nasty and hostile when people started talking about Britain being a small island that's full. As a migrant woman of colour, I felt deeply unwelcome.”
ON BORIS JOHNSON (AND HIS GOVERNMENT)
“I was at three different drink receptions that he turned up to last night, and it was quite interesting, watching him hone the speech throughout the night. So the first one, halfway through he's coming up with this 'cosmonaut...communist cosmonaut Corbyn' and by the time he got to the Northern reception, it was tripping off the tongue as if it'd been practiced. The activists are obviously besotted by him.”
“We've definitely seen lots more ministers wandering around, circulating – I've seen Boris Johnson like three times already.”
“There seems to have been quite a lot of effort to ensure that there are MPs and ministers at a lot of events, particularly compared to Labour where people were pulling out with a lot less reason. Given that Parliament is sitting, I think they've really tried to make it a success.”
ON THE SURPRISINGLY YOUNG MEMBERS
“This conference, you can tell, is much younger in terms of the people who are here than any other conference we've ever had in the Tory party.”
“I've come to these Tory conferences for years now – and I can truthfully say that there are more fucking ridiculous, sweaty, and twatty Moggster-Baker fanboys than I have ever seen before.”
Commons Confessions is a new column by political journalist and Haven't You Heard? Gossip, Power and How Politics Really Works author Marie Le Conte. Keep reading for more anonymous insight into our current political situation from those in the know.