All overboard – Conservative conference 2019

This year at Manchester, I’ve avoided all Fringes about Brexit. Not because the topic isn’t important, but on the evidence of previous conferences there is nothing new to discover. Conservative members want Brexit to be ‘done’. We knew that already.

Midland Hotel Bar, Conservative Party Conference
The Midland Hotel bar is less crowded than usual

This is quite an odd conference: it seems emptier here in Manchester than in previous years (and not just because of the fallout from Johnson’s failed prorogation). Not just in the main conference bar, but in the exhibition hall (though if you are here, there is a JCB digger to have a go on and a railway driving simulator game as well as the brilliant Alcohol Health Alliance stand). But there have been good discussions, too, on the economy, on health, on mental health. And one Fringe in particular has made me stop and think: the One Nation Conservatives Reception hosted by the Tory Reform Group (TRG). Forget the TIGGERS, here are the TRIGGERS.

The TRG is about as ascendant these days with the Tories as Progress are at Labour. The standard and lazy critique is that the TRG and Progress would sit happily within a single party. Both groups are utterly loyal to their host party. But what they both share is that they are under siege on their home turf. So they noisily attack the opposite party while protesting that their own should be a ‘broad church’: a term I heard several times last week in Brighton and this week in Manchester.

Robert Buckland QC MP
What Robert Buckland sees in the mirror

Some of the TRG have had the whip removed, so while the Progress rally featured 11 speakers, the TRG featured just two. But in Robert Buckland, the TRG had a true showman on the stage. Buckland, the Lord Chancellor, has been an excellent defender of the judiciary in these days of media attack (cf. his predecessor Liz Truss who failed to speak out when the Mail published its famous ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE splash). He was very clear that he, rather than Dominic Cummings, sets the Government’s position towards the judiciary. Then he fired himself up a bit. ‘You need to be able to look yourself in the mirror,’ he roared, ‘and ask yourself, am I up to the level of events?’

I have never heard this phrase before, and I love it. It’s ever so slightly pompous which is not necessarily a bad thing. What I like is that it calls for two levels of analysis: you have to have an opinion on what it is that ‘events’ require, and then you have to assess whether you’re ready to do whatever needs to be done. It’s context-dependent and requires you to pay attention.

Of course, the irony is that both the TRG and Progress have in this regard been found wanting. Their passion and commitment is as strong as ever, but they have not captured the imagination within their respective parties in a way necessary to beat other factional opponents. Until they can pass the Buckland Test, they will continue to fester on the margins: they demand to sit in a broad church but they cannot take their place at its lectern.

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