Jon Craig: My party conference highlights and lowlights

Written by Jon Craig on 5 October 2017 in Opinion
Opinion

Ruth Davidson gave the best speech of this year's Tory conference, while Gavin Williamson showed he is also one to watch.

Until Theresa May's speech, I thought the final day of the Conservative conference was going rather well for the Tories. The best day so far, in fact, after a week of mostly dull, flat speeches by Cabinet ministers, often to a half-empty hall.

The Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, was pure Francis Urquhart from TV's House of Cards, with a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek speech in which he said he had a "carrot and stick" approach to party discipline. "Personally, I don't much like the stick," said Williamson, who keeps a pet tarantula in a glass box on his desk in the Commons. "But it's amazing what can be achieved with a sharpened carrot."

Can anyone recall the last time a Chief Whip spoke at a Tory conference? I can't. But I've said for some time that Williamson is one to watch. Future leader? I wouldn't rule it out.

Next we heard from four or five new (or newish) Conservative MPs, including Will Quince from Colchester and Ben Bradley, the first Tory MP elected in Mansfield in the seat's 132-year history.

Then the new MP for Saffron Walden, Kemi Badenoch, who grew up in Nigeria, gave a sparkling introduction to the Prime Minister. Badenoch is the MP who memorably said in her maiden speech in the Commons in July: "As Woody Allen said about sex: if it's not messy you're not doing it right. The same is true for democracy." 

Why couldn't we have heard more speeches like these on the final day in Manchester from young MPs and activists throughout the week, instead of ministerial dirges punctuated by gaps in the programme and an early finish at about 4.30pm every day? The Tories would have done well to follow Labour's ruthless example in Brighton and limit the number and length of speeches by Cabinet ministers

But then it all went wrong. With hindsight, if Theresa May's speech had been cancelled because she wasn't match fit then at least the conference would have ended on a high after a morning of refreshing, upbeat speeches.

Prime Ministers, of course, believe they're indestructible, no matter how poorly they are. I remember many years ago, at an EU summit in Brussels, Margaret Thatcher was clearly suffering from a bad cold and sore throat. When we hacks expressed our sympathy to her she refused to admit that she wasn't feeling 100%, insisting she was fine.

It was obvious during Theresa May's TV interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday that she was suffering from a cold and bad cough. No doubt she insisted on fulfilling her commitment to do 28 broadcast interviews and speak at 19 receptions during the conference. But someone in her inner circle should have overruled her and told her to rest her voice for the big day.

Who do we blame for the P45 prank and the letters falling off the slogan on the stage behind the PM? It seems harsh to pin all the blame on poor, hapless Sir Patrick McLoughlin, the Tory chairman. But he's the top man in the party organisation, so it has to be him, I'm afraid.

Sir Patrick cut a forlorn figure in Manchester, I thought. I was chatting to Lord Ashcroft at the excellent News UK reception in the London Lounge about Sir Eric Pickles' report into what went wrong in the Tories' general election campaign.

"If I received a report with 126 recommendations on what my company needed to do better, I'd sack the chief executive," said Ashcroft, who's never short of an opinion. At that moment, Sir Patrick marched over to us and said to Ashcroft brusquely: "I've heard what you've been saying about me!"

Clearly I wasn't the first person to hear the peer's verdict on the Pickles report!

McLoughlin, I'm convinced, is not long for this world in his current role. Nor, I suspect, is the Prime Minister after her Manchester misery. Remember, Conservative leaders tend to be ousted in the period between the party conference and Christmas. And I speak as someone who was in the British embassy courtyard in Paris on the night in November 1990 when it became clear the game was up for Margaret Thatcher.

Some years later, in November 2003, I broke the story on Sky News that enough Tory MPs were backing a motion of no confidence in Iain Duncan Smith to trigger a vote to topple him. And remember, IDS's demise came just weeks after a throaty party conference speech peppered with standing ovations. Deja vu all over again?

Will Boris Johnson succeed Theresa May? Somehow, I doubt it. After the past few weeks I'm not sure he'll make the final two candidates on the ballot paper that goes to party members. Talking of November 1990, I now see Boris in the role played by Michael Heseltine back then, wounding, but not winning.

And the John Major figure of 2017? Well, Major was Chancellor, Philip Hammond has a similar "grey man" image and that didn't prevent Major becoming leader. Remember, the most often repeated quote in Tory circles is: "He who wields the dagger never wears the crown."

 

 

 

 

There were some highlights earlier in the week in Manchester, my favourite being the speech on Sunday by Ruth Davidson, the party's leader in Scotland.

Listening to her in my earpiece at the Sky News live point, I was struck by how much better she put the case for the Tories being the party for the less well off than Theresa May had in her Marr interview earlier. Quoting the late Scots MP Sir Teddy Taylor, she said the Conservative Party wasn't "just there for the people in the big houses, but for those who clean their tenement step as well".

And I liked the way she ridiculed the triumphalism of Labour and Jeremy Corbyn in Brighton, declaring: "Folks, he hasnae even won a raffle yet!"

That view was shared by many of the more Corbyn-sceptic Labour MPs I spoke to in Brighton. I chaired two fringe meetings for the Parliamentary Labour Party, one of which was called "Winning the next election", with Angela Eagle, Steve McCabe, Jess Phillips and Lucy Powell on the panel.

They warned a packed audience that Labour is in danger of turning its back on its traditional voters and the party has to do more to connect with white working class voters in historically Labour constituencies if it is to have any chance of winning power.

The MPs also warned party activists that the Tory campaign at the next election could not possibly be as inept as it was at the last election. I wonder if they still think that after watching the final day of the Conservative Party Conference?

 

 

 

Jon Craig is chief political correspondent at Sky News.

 

Picture by: Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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