Jon Craig: The Conservatives badly need to sex up their party conference
On the plus side, Theresa May made probably her leader's best speech yet - as did Jeremy Corbyn.
Theresa May wasn’t the only party leader to make a dancing entrance at her party conference. Well, almost. At the Labour conference, Jeremy Corbyn waltzed down some stairs in Strictly Come Dancing style when he arrived at the Mirror party at Liverpool’s Revolucion de Cuba. But sadly, the Labour leader wasn't up for a boogie, immediately declaring emphatically with a smile: "I am NOT going to dance!" After his big speech the following day, however, he broke into a half-hearted jig on the stage as T Rex’s 1972 hit “Children of the Revolution” – how apt - brought the conference to a close.
Despite last year’s disastrous conference speech, the Prime Minister had no such inhibitions when she shimmied on to the stage in Birmingham to the strains of ABBA’s Dancing Queen. She may not be the most elegant dancer, but she’s clearly enthusiastic, as she also showed during her visit to Africa a few weeks ago with more jerky “Maybot” movements.
The place to be for dancing in Birmingham was Tuesday night’s iNHouse karaoke party. If the PM had dropped in, she would have seen Karen Bradley, Matt Hancock (naturally), Caroline Noakes and Anne Milton among the ministers strutting their stuff. Top of the charts in the singing was the Solicitor General and powerful Welsh baritone Robert Buckland, who belted out Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” in a solo and then Tom Jones’ “Delilah” in a duet with the Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns. Hours later, many of us wondered if “Dancing Queen” was the appropriate Abba song for the PM’s entrance. After boasting about an end to austerity, perhaps the Tories should have played “Money, Money Money”. Or, since she was pleading with the hardline Brexiteers on the Tory back benches to back her strategy, it could have been “Take a Chance on Me”, “SOS” or even “Waterloo”.
There were some bold and ambitious pledges from the Prime Minister in her speech in Birmingham. The end of austerity, for instance. Has she told the Chancellor, Philip Hammond? And Labour claims the Prime Minister was guilty of stealing Labour policies, such as lifting the cap on town hall borrowing to start council house building and the levy on foreign property buyers.
Apart from “Dancing Queen”, the Tory conference was memorable for two things: the mayhem caused by Boris Johnson and the half-empty – or worse - conference hall for ministers’ speeches. Even for Sajid Javid’s speech, the hall was half-full. That’s because during his pre-lunch slot most of the activists were queueing up for the former Foreign Secretary’s “Chuck Chequers” lunchtime rally.
Johnson is adored by pro-Brexit Tory activists as much as Jeremy Corbyn is by his left-wing supporters and their rallies are equally frenzied. That’s one reason, Boris’s supporters claim, why he should be Tory leader. The Conservatives have always loved a glamorous blonde – Thatcher, Heseltine and now Boris – and as always he made sure there was a chaotic media scrum and was then greeted like a rock star at his rally. But although, not surprisingly, he was the biggest box office draw in Birmingham, his wasn’t the only packed fringe. And, again not surprisingly, it was Brexit that packed them in. On both sides of the argument, though.
A “Leave Means Leave” fringe at which Jacob Rees-Mogg was the main speaker was packed, yet so was a “Conservatives For A People’s Vote” meeting, with Anna Soubry, Phillip Lee and Justine Greening. The reason Tory activists headed for the fringe and shunned the main hall was because there was no atmosphere and no passion in it. There were hardly any speeches from the floor, just a procession of speeches from ministers and other senior party figures from the platform. No wonder activists stayed away.
While the PM is out of step with many in her party on Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn had the Labour Party dancing to his tune as never before after his conference in Liverpool last week. At Labour’s gathering the vast hall was packed throughout and at times delegates were being turned away because it was full.
The contrast didn’t end there. At Labour’s conference there were passionate debates – on re-selection of MPs and Brexit, for example – and there were fiery speeches from the floor. That was a deliberate policy: more speeches by activists from the floor and fewer by MPs and shadow ministers from the platform. There was also a Momentum conference going on at the same time elsewhere in Liverpool, with speeches by leading figures such as John McDonnell and senior union leaders. That event was packed and passionate too.
Birmingham was supposed to be the conference attended by more young Tory activists than ever before. And it was, to be fair. There were young – nearly all male – activists everywhere. One of my Sky News colleagues described them as “teenage boys in their dads’ suits”. Harsh, but fair. But these young activists were not interested in sitting in the hall listening to scripted speeches by ministers reading from an autocue. What they were interested in was the raw politics of fringe meetings in sweaty, overcrowded rooms. The Tories have a big problem here. They badly need to sex up their conference. Holding a proper debate on Brexit in the main hall would be a start.
To be fair to her, Theresa May made probably her best speech as party leader. But the same could also be said of Mr Corbyn at Labour’s conference. It was probably his best as Labour leader too. It was less rambling than some and delivered in a conversational tone with contrasts in pitch and delivery that suggested he’d had some coaching.
Mr Corbyn’s problems on Labour policy on leaving the EU are nothing compared to Theresa May’s in her party, but Brexit was a muddle and a struggle for the leadership in Liverpool. First, a group of party fixers had to spend six hours meeting long into the night to agree on the wording of the motion to be debated and voted on by the conference. Then Mr McDonnell said a so-called People’s Vote should be simply about the terms of the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal and not include the option of remaining in the EU. Hours later the Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer stunned delgates – and received wild applause – when he said in his conference speech: “Nobody is ruling out remain as an option.”
Listening to Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell in Liverpool, you’d think Labour’s red revolution was just round the corner and a general election was imminent. Their speeches sounded like those of an Opposition leader and Shadow Chancellor when it’s known that an election is only months away. Yet in fringe meetings during the week, most Labour backbenchers who spoke were highly sceptical about the likelihood of an early election, predicting – rightly, surely – that the Tories are not going to risk giving up power by calling an election.
That was certainly the message from a defiant Theresa May in Birmingham too. In the weeks ahead she faces battles with her Brexit opponents at Westminster and with EU leaders and Brussels officials at a potentially make-or-break summit in two weeks’ time. But for a few moments in Birmingham she looked like someone “Having the time of your life”.
Jon Craig is chief political correspondent at Sky News.