Postmistress May, roadie Rees-Mogg and the ‘Great Twatsby’ dominate Tory conference

This year’s event saw a government unable to fill the main hall for its cabinet speakers, while activists queued round the block for fringe events

Speaking at the Tory party conference, British PM Theresa May has ruled out the possibility of a second Brexit referendum, saying such an outcome would be "a politician's vote." Video: Conservative Party

When David Cameron held his referendum to “settle the issue of Europe for a generation”, I wonder if he envisaged a Conservative party conference like this one taking place more than two years after the fact. It is the third conference since the EU referendum, and the second since article 50 was triggered. The Tories are still fighting their forever war; we all just have to live in it.

MPs who should, years ago, have been relegated to the status of taxidermal curiosities, still stalk these lands. “I see some people are here who were part of the original Maastricht referendum campaign,” bellowed Bill Cash at some deranged fringe event. “Give them a clap!” Give them the clap, more like.

“Last week was the 30th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech,” ran another rallying cry. Somewhere at this gathering in Birmingham, it was always turn-of-the-1990s o’clock. It’s as if there’s some tear in the Tory-bastardry continuum. Who’s going to fix it? Theresa May, who mostly resembles a Quentin Blake drawing of an unravelling postmistress? Boris Johnson, the Cabbage Patch Draco Malfoy, who turned up for about an hour and bottled his big fight? Or perhaps you prefer some of the other prospects. Jeremy Hunt? Sajid Javid? Liz Truss?!

Tories forget policies

Still, take up your tiki torches and join me at the Tory survivors’ tribal council, which felt as though it lasted at least 17 days. The conference slogan - “OPPORTUNITY” - was not so much phoned in as faxed in. That is it in its entirety. “OPPORTUNITY”. As in, we had an opportunity to choose something that didn’t sound as if it was thought up by a small-portfolio buy-to-let landlord whose wife was calling up the stairs: “Can you hurry, Les - Kwikprint shuts at six?” The slogan called to mind that line in The Thick of It when the news editor says: “Just tell me what the f**king news is and I’ll stick it on the front page. It’s not like we’re the Independent, I can’t just stick a headline saying ‘CRUELTY’ and then stick a picture of a dolphin or a whale underneath it.”


As it turned out, “OPPORTUNITY” was a slogan that mainly had some floundering secretary of state stuck underneath it. The story of this conference was one of a government unable to remotely fill the main hall for its cabinet speakers, while activists queued round the block for fringe events protesting against its central policy. Javid, highly fancied for the Tory leadership, couldn’t even come close to packing the hall at his own party’s conference.

Three individuals, and what they represented, dominated these four days: May herself, Johnson (99 per cent absent) and Jacob Rees-Mogg. We shall come to these dramatis personae shortly. As for the big policy announcements, there is a pop art comic strip where a sobbing woman is saying: “I can’t believe it. I forgot to have children.” This, but for policies. The Tories had forgotten to have any policies. If your answer to “What is going to win us back Canterbury?” is “Action on middle-class cocaine users,” you must actually be on cocaine. May’s ludicrous “festival of national renewal” idea was immediately dubbed the festival of Brexit Britain. You’ve heard of straight-to-DVD; May’s policy agenda is now straight-to-meme.

The only retail offer here was literal retail. As always, there were a wide range of shopping opportunities for activists. I saw several men being measured for a suit, as you do at a party conference. I saw a huge amount of felted goods and ceramic jewellery. I saw lots of Conservative baby bibs. (Interesting to market your logo as something that specifically is going to get thrown up on.)

Party has been gamified

But on with the main event. It was difficult not to conclude that the Tory party has been gamified in a way that rewards aggressive imbecility. The signal that you wish to be taken seriously as leadership material is to say something incredibly stupid. For Jeremy Hunt, that meant declaring, pointedly: “The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving.” Yes. Last year the EU was Hitler; this year it is Stalin. Like almost every minister who has insulted the other side in this negotiation since article 50 was triggered, Hunt predicated his trash talk on the idea that the EU doesn’t have the internet, and that this sort of WTF-ery is somehow firewalled by the white cliffs of Dover. It isn’t, as furious condemnation from the people we want a deal off has since confirmed.

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson (C) arrives to speak at a fringe event at the conference centre in Birmingham. Photograph: EPA/NEIL HALL

Furthermore, if you ever wonder what has happened to our political discourse in recent times, consider that 10 years ago this level of analysis was the preserve of imaginatively limited internet commenters. “EUSSR” took its place below the line, alongside such exquisitely crafted points as “Tony Bliar” or “ZANU Liarbore”. EUSSR is now the sort of thing the actual foreign secretary says on an actual conference stage.

The best thing you could say about Hunt’s speech was that it wasn’t being made by Philip Hammond, who still delivers lines with all the rhetorical flourish of a reversing Securicor vehicle. If you wanted to hide pictures of Johnson blowing rails with Donald Trump, inside a Hammond speech would be the perfect place. Indeed, the chancellor did stash some fairly outre material in his dirge, such as the statement “the Conservative party is sceptical of ideologues”.

Even less appealing was Gavin Williamson, who continues to look as though he took the rejection letter from Starfleet Academy pretty hard. Still, the defence secretary is going to start his own force of “cyber cadets”. Alas, to watch him make repeated pauses for laughter that never came was to watch a man finding out in real time that he isn’t going to captain this particular starship.

Evil twin device

Other lowlights? That old reverse Midas, Chris Grayling, being late for his own speech, which turned out to be the replacement bus service of oratory. And then there was Dominic Raab. Soap operas that have seriously lost their way often deploy an “evil twin” device. I can only assume that this is what has happened to the Tory telenovela. Raab is playing both roles simultaneously. He devoted much of his speech to lambasting Cassandra-like warnings about a no-deal Brexit. “This time [they’ll]claim that no deal means patients won’t get their medicines, mobile phone roaming charges will go through the roof and - “ Dominic? DOMINIC??? Sorry to cut you off, but those were the impact assessments put out by your own department, of which you are the secretary of state. “Honestly,” Raab continued ironicidally, “it would be pathetic if it wasn’t so dangerous.”

And with that, we can avoid him no longer. Johnson had almost full-spectrum dominance of this conference. Talked about feverishly by attendees, his moves endlessly speculated upon - the effect is to make the entire event seem like a lavish party missing only its host. Think of Boris as the Great Twatsby. The effect of much of his manoeuvring this week was to remind us that he is someone so far away from having a clue that he constantly suggests building a bridge to it. Does Johnson even have an psychoanalyst? Like several of the worst men of the age, he appears to deem high office the place to explore issues that really should be worked out via his dream journal.

Political terrorism

Still, here comes the Unaboris with his 4,600-word manifesto, ready to commit another act of political terrorism. His fringe speech on Tuesday chastised a government for which he was collectively responsible for two whole years; his Sunday Telegraph manifesto was a document in which not a whole lot of detail was manifest. The former foreign secretary’s reputation as a rousing prose stylist remains baffling. Johnson writes like someone who has failed to enable the find-my-point function on his phone. Even so, the word-dump ensured the prime minister couldn’t even get pre-title billing for her own conference.

Three full days into this psychodrama, May was asked on the Today programme what she would say to Johnson. Chat shit get banged, surely? Unfortunately, she went with: “What I would say is, ‘I’m concentrating on what is important, which is getting a good deal for the UK.’”

Thus it was left to others to do the banging of the shit-chatter. There was a strong sense among MPs here that they are so very, very tired of Johnson that they can’t even be bothered being artful about it. “As far as I’m concerned,” Henley MP John Howell reflected, “Boris can just f**k off.” The Scottish Tories have launched a campaign to stop him becoming party leader, under the name Operation Arse. As one put it: “We called it that so we’d be clear who we were talking about.” Asked what the big challenge for the Tories was, the former minister Lord O’Neill judged: “I guess key people in this party have to stop being dickheads, really.”

So quite a lot was hinging on Johnson’s speech. Unfortunately, Johnson has a psychological tell, where he likes to see Britain as the sort of country that is so sexually potent it could impregnate the rest of the world just by looking at it. In last year’s election, I saw him rage that sending Trident to sea with no missiles on board would mean “the whole country’s literally firing blanks”. In Tuesday’s Birmingham speech, he announced that he had come to “put some lead in the collective pencil”. Again, one for the psychoanalyst from the Tories’ vote-for-your-id candidate.

As he knows, Johnson hasn’t anywhere near the numbers among MPs to get his name on the members’ ballot in any leadership contest. So Tuesday’s speech, however rapturously received till that point, concluded thus: “I urge our friends in government to deliver what the people voted for, to back Theresa May in the best way possible, by softly, quietly and sensibly backing her original plan.” Thank you, Cuck Norris.

Settle for the roadie

Until Johnson finally turned up in Birmingham, his place in the activists’ affections was occupied by that appalling bacillus Rees-Mogg. Hey - if you can’t have the lead singer, you’ll settle for the roadie. I enjoyed him most on how the Tories can win the youth vote. Rees-Mogg, who spent his youth being 73, seems to think that all the youths he speaks to want to take back control of their laws, their money and their borders. It is to be assumed the data sample was the 12 members of Durham University Conservative Students he met when he blew into town to debate some motion like: “This House Would Nationalise Gemma Collins”.

Never ones to be rushed, the Tories seem to have finally realised that people want houses, and were consequently free to move on to arguing their way to deadlock on what sort of houses they should build. Rees-Mogg is against the plan to build the sort of houses that people don’t want, and instead wants “Georgian pastiche houses”. Also he wants a bridge (who doesn’t?). He said he wanted the Bath bypass to be “a Georgian pastiche bridge with little pavilions at both ends”.

Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg (L) is surrounded by media in the main hall on the first day of the Conservative Party Conference. Photograph: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

The problem with Rees-Mogg saying “pastiche” every 15 seconds is that it reminds you he is one. Still, they absolutely lap it up here. He pointed out to one pantwettingly amused audience that he wore his conference security pass on a buttonhole chain. “It’s the one thing I learned from Michael Heseltine.” This particular event had required Rees-Mogg to enter via a staircase, and he is almost at the stage of dancing down it at that sideways angle of the light-entertainment host. A barrage of cameras attends his every affectation. “Oh, poor Jacob,” cooed a woman in front of me. “He’s just trying to sit quietly in the front row until he’s called to speak.” Madam, I regret to inform you that this is a defective take. You are as entitled to your fantasy of a knee-trembler in the scullery as the next forelock-tugger, but the camera at which Rees-Mogg does not wish to affect lengthy surprise has yet to be found.

Meanwhile, he never fails to gives them what they want. “As you would expect,” began a typical piece of self-reference, “I’m going to give you a historic analogy.” Explaining that he was happy with a “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Canada” Brexit model, Rees-Mogg noted: “That is a word developed by a nanny and nannies are jolly good things.”

Time and again this week, the likes of Rees-Mogg, Priti Patel and Andrea Jenkyns suggested that no deal was much the preferred outcome, as then we wouldn’t have to pay the EU “GBP40bn of your money”. “Why aren’t we doing that anyway?”, they kept saying, to loud applause. But please don’t imagine they haven’t thought it all through in remorseless analytical detail. “Brexit will be a success,” explained Rees-Mogg, “because it is a Conservative thing to be doing.”

Cameron’s shepherd’s hut

As for the prime minister, her own speech was entitled “Campaign 2022”, a prospect radically more depressing than even “Qatar 2022”. Thanks to last year’s calamity, any speech in which she doesn’t cough up a lung is a positive. But her wide-ranging, Abba-dancing turn as the unity candidate was strongly applauded in the conference hall, seemingly as something other than self-satire.

So here is where we are at the end of this conference. Theresa May is still prime minister. Boris Johnson still wants to be prime minister. And somewhere in a GBP25,000 shepherd’s hut, David Cameron is sleeping easily, tweeting his pedicures and continually popping his memoirs back a few months in the hope that his mess will have been cleaned up by publication date.

Yet if Labour are comforted by this shitshow, they must consider its implications as far as their own performance markers go. Imagine not having a 10-point poll lead over this lot. “Don’t know” (39 per cent) still outpolls both May (36 per cent) and Jeremy Corbyn (23 per cent) as to who would make the best prime minister. This is Groundhog Year. For all their big talk, and their dick-waving, and their self-started fights with minority communities, both parties are exactly where they were a year ago in the poll tracker, even as various doomsday clocks have ticked closer to midnight.

Whether or not they can admit it to themselves, both parties (though Labour more so, being the opposition) are effectively waiting for a crisis to shift the numbers in their favour. No deal, a recession, a welfare system failure - the best hope for moving the polls is one disaster or another befalling the people whom their different forms of ineptitude have already shamefully failed. That is the most likely gamechanger - and a reminder that however atrocious the current state of politics feels, it is still not the darkest timeline. There are much darker ones, and we could easily cross into several of them. – Guardian