I am here in Manchester after a lead-up period of a few weeks in which I wasn’t sure whether I would actually come, for a few reasons. Boris Johnson has taken up his shovel with Stakhanovite glee in his attempt to undermine the PM. As she failed to rebuke him openly after the Daily Telegraph piece, the PM allowed doubts about her authority to grow. There is an early-90s sense of obsession about Europe and domestic drift, and although things aren’t as bad as Matthew Parris’ wrist-slitting Times piece argued, we are in danger of repeating the same old mistakes with encouragement from the same old faces of the Maastricht mob.
Moreover, I didn’t think much of the PM’s Florence speech when she gave it – it said little that was new. But as days passed, it established a kind of defensive position for her, and the further attacks on her seem to have made others in the party realise that passivity is fatal to the party. So when Boris again stretched collective responsibility this week, there was a stronger reaction. The Nicky Morgan piece – she in fairness has never been passive – is excellent. It seems that Boris will leave the Government in the near future. His departure will be more like George Brown’s final bender than Heseltine’s defiant march into exile.
Another thread of doubt was the danger that the PM’s own future would overshadow the conference. The last thing we need now is a beauty contest after the style of Blackpool 1963 or 2005. For one thing, we haven’t got obvious popular talent in the immediate contenders that we had on those occasions. Given the state of things generally, I welcome the PM’s statement of intent to go into the next election. She might not, of course, but clearly this is not the time to go. If she remembers that there was some strong policy in her first speeches as PM, and that there are things in the manifesto worth doing, she can buy time. We need to find something to talk about other than Brexit and past mistakes.
The media obsess about “unity” at party conferences, and we must buttress the PM’s position. But we need to do some hard thinking about almost everything else. Even then, saying that we need to win over younger voters is not enough. Policy shift requires some preparation. When we pledged to scrap the Triple Lock and reform social care, younger voters saw it as Tories being mean to grandparents. Not enough had been done to explain how generational unfairness actually works against the young.
Some of our other policies are well-intentioned but not obviously effective to voters. We reformed taxation to rebalance individual investment away from increasingly zombie-like buy-to-let holdings, and nudge the housing back into the market. We upset landlords (who as a class frankly have nothing to complain about, but moan loudly) without making tenants feel we are helping them on to the ladder. Help to Buy is almost as wrongheaded a policy as rent capping.
But I am glad to be here. There is nothing to lose in Manchester, and there are enough exciting fringe events that many of them clash. Not too many of the themes feature the dreaded “…after Brexit” suffix. The conference app is excellent. The media do not come to party conferences to be helpful, a point all members should bear in mind both in reading journalistic commentary and providing source material for it. When the Parliamentary party goes back to Westminster I hope we will see less of the self-indulgent posturing than we have had of late. It destroys our chances at the grass-roots.
As the last of the national conferences there is always a danger that something will stir up elsewhere which distracts or diverts us. Nothing damaging has emerged. Labour are still swirling round the plughole of antisemitism. I didn’t watch any of the Lib Dem event for the first time in years, and missed nothing. UKIP only attracted the attention of karaoke singers and trademark lawyers.
By Friday night, I was looking forward to getting here. Manchester is a great place, and looking around there is still huge potential for redevelopment and growth. It takes about the same time to travel the 160 miles from Euston to shiny, massively-invested Piccadilly as it does the 65 miles from grotty Portsmouth Harbour to Waterloo. Some of the northern complaints about lack of infrastructure make me laugh. One of the reasons HS2 is so unpopular is that to many of us it looks like “gilding the lily”.
Coming up on the train yesterday, the “Hang the Tories” banner and some of the other vile stuff on social media was very apparent. But the rain will deter a lot of the genuine loons. When I got chatting to a guy in a Militant tee shirt in a pub, he seemed as concerned that Corbyn is “selling out” to chase votes as he was about us being in town. In any case, we must not allow ourselves to be intimidated or distracted by threats of violence from the Hard Left. We’ve got work to do and fun to have!