THERE ARE JOBS... AND JOBS. One of mine took me to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham – into the lion’s den.
This year I was shocked – not by the policies proposed (there were hardly any) but by the delegates’ attitudes. The establishment were in retreat, much of the arrogance was gone and the divisions were vicious. And this with almost four years to go until the next planned election.
The common theme was fear of a Labour victory, just 18 months after we lost an election. Everything was posed as “Vote Tory or get Corbyn”. They have a real fear of the size of our membership and the way it mobilises. They are terrified that our policies would bring fundamental change to Britain. And their mood was deflated by the previous week’s Labour conference looking like a party preparing for government.
My second impression was the pointlessness of the main conference itself. Social media was full of pictures of culture secretary Jeremy Wright addressing a virtually empty hall. I’ve seen branch meetings better attended than that and why on earth he delivered his speech to so few people I have no idea. Did they think no one would notice?
It wasn’t just his speech – even the Chancellor’s speech wasn’t to a full hall. And it wasn’t that people weren’t at the conference – they were – it’s just that they were at the fringe meetings. The contrast with Labour was severe. The Tory members are fed up with having no decision-making or speaking rights at their conferences and will no longer be cannon fodder for the party establishment.
But what really struck those present, and, though reported in the media, was not emphasised enough, were the phenomenal divisions in the party. The fringe meetings were rammed, especially everything on Brexit. The majority of the membership – or at least the activists - are clamouring for a more Eurosceptic leadership. But those who oppose Boris Johnson’s clear leadership bid – and that’s not just remainers – oppose him with a vengeance. Here’s where the rifts won’t heal.
I can’t see a way the pro- and anti- Brexit strands can stay in the same party, especially when May goes, as she appears to be all that is holding them together. It may well be that the Tory MPs won’t put Johnson on the next leadership ballot paper – but if he becomes leader, their membership will shrink even further.
It looks to me that it will be the Tory Party that splits, not Labour. Indeed the splits over Europe have already started, with pro-second referendum MEP Julie Girling being expelled from the party.