The Conservatives are in a mess of their own making, but it is not clear whether they recognise this. The foreign secretary, previously safe in his other role of grassroots darling, but now having to wrestle Jacob Rees-Mogg for the position, is only light relief. The real wreckers – Cameron and Osborne – have long departed the scene without so much as a used pile of £50 notes scattered on the debris.
It was Cameron, of course, who lost control of the debate on Europe, trying and failing to keep his party united. For too many members, Europe and Brexit are the only topics that count. There’s a concentration on a purity of Brexit and an almost shocking uninterest in what country we might seek to build in the years following 2019. These guys came to Manchester to check that they weren’t going to be betrayed by Fiscal Phil Hammond. They whooped their enthusiasm when Andrea Leadsom, in a fringe entitled ‘How to handle Brexit’, asserted that Brexit would be brilliant because it would be a great success because we have universities and a civil service and why won’t people give good news without saying ‘Despite Brexit…’ The crowd lapped it up.
Cameron, too, licensed the Crosbyfication of British politics, setting England against Scotland, city against country, young against old. To Cameron’s credit, he did attempt to attract BAME voters, but though Theresa May’s track record against modern slavery and speaking out against racism is solid, she also attacked the citizens of nowhere and allowed those awful Home Office ‘go home’ vans.
Meanwhile, Brexit gives the Tories far less room to manoeuvre against a Jeremy Corbyn whom they still despise but now also fear. But they have not had to make the case for capitalism for decades and have, frankly, forgotten how to do it.
Osborne gave the Tories a slightly different problem. We’ve said before that he wasn’t much cop as a Chancellor. Just one part of the problem was that he messed about too much in areas like housing – he saw social housing as a breeding ground for Labour voters. (Though by cutting benefits for young working adults he may have created far more Labour voters than he might ever have imagined.) The remaining Osbornites, having cried wolf over Miliband’s so-called Venezuela-style socialism, are too concerned about the hard Brexit so beloved of their colleagues to strike out new ideas for the economy. Instead, the Tories have stolen Miliband’s ideas, such as the dollops of subsidy towards social housing, and moves against markets that don’t work, as in energy. That isn’t universally popular within the Conservative Party – I heard mutterings against the potential lifting of the public sector pay cap and the Spectator has been mightily upset at any moves against the market. There needs to be a big debate. But Brexit is sucking out so much energy that the party can’t even row about the fundamentals of the economy.
Boris Johnson has finished the week with his prospects of the premiership at an end, whatever the Telegraph and Spectator may hope. He has been a disastrous foreign secretary, if you assume that the job involves getting other governments on your side. The reaction to his speech this week suggested his limited range has finally been found out. Oddly, had he spent the last month really getting behind the prime minister, and trying to indicate a level of previously-hidden gravitas, he might have ended the conference in a far stronger position.
But whoever is in charge will have to face the fact that the issues of identity that have driven the Brexit debate have extinguished the development of any wider ideas. The Conservatives know something is wrong, but not why. And the evidence of this week in Manchester is that too few of them currently have the analysis, energy and focus to put it right.