Political party members are not representative of a party’s voters, let alone the country as a whole. They are atypical. This simple truth seems to be forgotten each year when party conference season comes around, and commentators seem surprised that attempts to stage-manage by the party hierarchy fall flat. The party of government (whether at national or local level) has to make compromises, and although ministers and councillors make up a decent proportion of attendees, the grassroots are always more likely to be annoyed by what has been done and to argue for greater ideological purity.
It’s always easier to spot this phenomenon at Labour and (to a lesser extent) at the Liberal Democrats: their conferences are boisterous affairs while the Conservatives are usually more tightly choreographed. This year, however, the two main images from Birmingham will be that of a dancing prime minister and a largely empty main conference hall. Trying to draw a Venn diagram of the Tory tribes in attendance is difficult: you have those who want to get things done, and the Brexit crowd (who want to get things done but not in a necessarily practical way). The intersection between these was occupied most vociferously by Jeremy Hunt, trying too hard to appeal to the Brexiters to dismay from the capitals of Europe.
I’m not always sure why you would sit in the main conference hall to hear a set-piece speech. It isn’t like a debate, where it’s useful to be in the room. With a set piece speech you can get the transcript afterwards and read it for yourself. So the people who Want to Get Things Done don’t go to the main hall. Instead they go to fringe events where a topic important to them is under discussion: whether that’s youth volunteering, the threat and opportunity of AI, or resilient communities. Unlike in previous years, the Conservative party knows that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is a threat. They understand why, but can’t do anything about it because they have an immediate problem: how to deliver Brexit without tearing the economy apart – but they are happy to turn up to fringe discussions about it. Complaining about the main hall being largely abandoned while fringe events are packed out is like looking at the empty-ish chamber of the House of Commons during an obscure debate and thinking that MPs are lazy, rather than that they have correctly deduced that they can work more effectively elsewhere.
The Brexit mob, meanwhile, have not got much further than their new demand of ‘chuck Chequers’. Their rallies have the fervour of a religion and their converts wear t-shirts that demand that you ‘believe in Britain’. It isn’t an original point to make but this bunch will never be happy. Alliances can be ruptured and the lives of millions thrown into chaos but no amount of other people’s hardships will ever be enough for these zealots. Parliamentary arithmetic, and the notion that the Conservative party will dump Theresa May when she has got Brexit over the line (and the grassroots Conservative party is much more Brexity than the parliamentary party), means that this group holds a huge amount of heft. Hence Hunt’s ridiculous and graceless speech.
Speaking of ridiculous and graceless, it’s interesting that Boris Johnson overshadowed the conference only until he gave his speech. Despite his speech being packed with believers and reporters, I couldn’t find anyone in the wider conference area who would say a good word about him. It seems to me now that Johnson is missing the limelight more than he misses being in office. He doesn’t really want to be prime minister (though I think he would like to have been prime minister) but nor does he want anyone else to shine at the job. But he now surely knows that the chances of his being put forward to the Conservative membership as one of the final two leadership choices are next to zero and to the extent that they are not zero they rely on other candidates making unforced errors. He will splutter and wheeze into oblivion. The Conservatives still have some time (and an historically amazing capacity for reinvention) to avoid following him.