The Conservatives enjoyed themselves in Manchester, but there was anger beneath the jolly veneerby Marie Le Conte / October 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
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…