Wandering hands and selfies with Dominic Cummings—how Tory party conference became a comfort blanket for little boys

The Conservatives enjoyed themselves in Manchester, but there was anger beneath the jolly veneer

October 04, 2019
Dominic Cummings in Manchester. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images
Dominic Cummings in Manchester. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

Conservative party conference felt like an afterthought, at first; the government had just lost its Supreme Court case and its short recess, few MPs were expected to attend, and everyone felt too worried about the ticking Brexit clock to really focus on a jaunt to Manchester.

It felt like a miracle, then, to walk inside the convention complex and find it both full and disconcertingly buoyant. Cheerful party activists were there, ministers were out in force, walking around and shaking hands, fringe events were often oversubscribed, and the queue at the Midland bar was endless.

This was no accident; frontbenchers were on strict orders from up high to not stay holed up in their suites and spend as much time as possible in places where they could be seen. The number of speeches in the main hall was also cut drastically, in order to avoid awkward shots of empty rows of seats.

The cheerful mood was helped by the absence of the rebels, who were dealt with some weeks ago and mostly did not bother turning up, and their fellow travellers who, while still Conservatives, felt no need to inflict the three-day Borisfest upon themselves. (Asked if they would be going, one Boris-sceptic MP said: “Haha, as if I’d be going to conference.”)

With enough bodies in the rooms and few dissenters in attendance, it all looked like things were going as smoothly as they possible could. Still, if you took the time to look a bit closer, something felt a bit off.

First, there was the fact that no matter how much ministers were told to stroll around the grounds, you could not hide the fact that only so many MPs were physically present. Like a glitch in the Matrix, it was possible to turn around every seven minutes or so to see James Cleverly walking just behind you.

Then there was the anger, quietly simmering behind the jovial veneer of the event but occasionally exploding in unsightly ways. At one fringe event on immigration, spirits ran high and repeated suggestions were made that the country simply was too full to bring in anyone else.

At another, some MPs hit out at the “left-wing mainstream media” and sounded grimly ominous when they taunted journalists who would “soon be out of a job.” At many others, reporters were booed and jeered simply for asking questions to politicians.

Then there were the men. Dozens, hundreds of young men in identikit suits and the occasional cigar, flooding events, travelling in flocks and throwing up on the carpets.

Walking into the Midland bar at night meant being confronted by a wall of men, sweating and loud and drunk, looking like they were having the time of their lives. Charlotte Edwardes’ allegations about the Prime Minister groping her at a Spectator event in 1999 came out over the weekend, and the story unfolded as the conference went on. (Johnson strenuously denies the allegations.)

It felt different reading it surrounded by Johnson’s peers. Numerous women who were in Manchester were told by numerous men that a mere hand on a thigh should be taken as a compliment or brushed off as a joke. A lot of them ended up dealing with instances of unwanted wandering hands themselves.

Perhaps this always happens at conference, and Edwardes’ claims only acted as a conduit for women to share their own experiences. Perhaps the absurdly skewed gender balance of the event made some men think they could get away with more.

Elsewhere in the bars, another sign that things just weren’t very normal came from Dominic Cummings, the unexpected main character of the gathering. Radiating contempt and wearing a slouchy tracksuit, the PM’s adviser looked like a malevolent warlock on his day off as he tried to cut through the bars at night.

The task wasn’t easy as with every step he took, another quasi-pubescent Tory would stop him to ask for a selfie and he would oblige, clearly aware of how grotesque it looked to everyone else.

The natural conclusion of all this had to be Boris Johnson on stage on Wednesday, receiving some of the loudest applause of the three days by saying that his own mother had voted for Brexit.

If this Conservative party conference was anything, it wasn’t dead, worried or fractious; it was a comfort blanket for little boys, their safe space in the midst of a political storm they created for themselves.

It is nice, in a way, that they seemed to enjoy it so much. These days, there is not a lot they can look forward to.