Political party conferences are invariably described either as ‘upbeat’ or ‘subdued’, though often the reality is more complicated. This is often true of the Conservative Party conference and the mood this year, under the shadow of Brexit, was particularly difficult to summarise, writes Neil Johnson.
In truth there is probably nothing quite like the modern Conservative Party Conference – certainly in comparison to party conferences in Ireland. Meeting this year in Birmingham, probably the UK’s largest conference centre, the conference brings together thousands of journalists, lobbyists and exhibitors, party activists and, of course, the entire Cabinet and most of the Government.
The conference has grown over the years and a series of temporary buildings are erected outside the centre to accommodate the vast array of meetings and receptions that take place almost continuously during the four-day gathering. All this takes place inside a large security cordon which adds its own surreal touch as protesters gather at the entrance, many dressed in costumes to protest in support of badgers, against fracking and for pension reform to name a few.
Inside the cordon there are fringe meetings on every conceivable subject. These used to be held during lunchtime and after the conference proceedings closed every day at 5pm but now take place from 8am right the way through conference and up to 8pm in the evening – when an endless series of receptions starts and goes on late into the night. Conference is certainly not for the faint-hearted.
“The atmosphere prevailing at the conference was one of uncertainty. Will the Government deliver on Brexit? What form will it take? Will Mrs May survive as PM?”
The Conservatives, following the General Election in 2017, occupy a peculiar position. They possess a consistent lead in opinion polls, a very rare state of affairs for a government that is technically approaching mid-term. Despite this, however, the atmosphere prevailing at the conference was one of uncertainty. Will the Government deliver on Brexit? What form will it take? Will Mrs May survive as PM? Precisely how will the cards fall and how will MPs (including the DUP) vote if and when a deal is reached? In truth no one knows what the next few weeks will bring let along the months up to and after March 2019 – the Brexit deadline.
The NI Conservatives held their conference reception on the Tuesday evening and it was heavily oversubscribed as usual. Northern Ireland, of course, is cursed by the double uncertainty of essentially having no devolved government (and no real expectation of one) and also being especially vulnerable to Brexit matters.
Against this backdrop, the local Conservatives provided a platform for Belfast International Airport to call for a cut in Air Passenger Duty and for the Federation of Small Business to air the idea that Northern Ireland be turned into a Freeport post-Brexit. The frustrations of many Conservatives were just below the surface, however. Many wonder about precisely how good the communications between the ministers and the advisers in the Northern Ireland Office and May’s Number 10 actually are, and many blame the NIO for crashing devolution by promoting the DUP-SF axis in recent years and then having neither real plans nor the determination to unblock the stalemate they helped create.
Many feel the NIO is addicted to crisis management and (over?) emphasising its role while at the same time being completely devoid of any plan to move either politics or society forward. Often it seems that Secretaries of State are prisoners of the civil servants and are destined to be trotted out and mouth platitudes that make them look ridiculous.
At the end of the four days as activists and MPs headed back to their homes and their constituencies there was a feeling that the current uncertainty meant that many (other than some well-known ‘big beasts’) were keeping their counsel, both on Brexit, and on the lamentable failure of NIO policy in Northern Ireland in recent years. The one thing that we can be certain about however is that not everyone will be happy when the dust finally settles.