The two main UK party conferences are now gatherings of the excited. They are closer to evangelical revivalist meetings. Those in attendance arrive to pay homage to their leaders who they regard as prophet like figures that will lead them to the Promised Land. They are part of the current volcanic political turbulence and not an alternative for those seeking more reasoned debate.
Theresa May is an unlikely prophet. She is serious minded and without the charisma of the spellbinding orator. Yet party members attending the Conservative conference in Birmingham could barely contain their excitement as May took to the stage on two occasions, at the opening of the conference and at the end. Her contributions were beautifully choreographed, as artful as New Labour at its peak. She did not say very much and yet she managed to inspire those in the hall who had been waiting since they were around six months old for the UK to leave the European Union. May declared again that Brexit meant Brexit. She would trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty before next March and that a great repeal bill would be presented to Parliament in the summer in which EU legislation would be transferred to the UK. The repeal bill is a logistical inevitability. The government, and indeed this parliament, will have enough on their hands agreeing the terms of Brexit without revising the mountain of legislation and regulatory frameworks associated with the UK’s membership of the EU. Therefore it is unavoidable that revisions will have to wait.
Nonetheless May managed to make her announcements sound like the act of a buccaneering Brexiteer. She had metamorphosed from the low profile supporter of the Remain campaign to the Prime Minister leading us out with steely resolution.
Although the terms of Brexit are still vague we probably know more than we realise from the public statements of ministers and from various private briefings. The UK will be out of the EU by March 2019. All relevant legislation will be transferred to the UK Parliament. Nothing will be amended before the 2020 election as the pre-election campaign will be the main centre of political focus. That means the 2020- 2025 parliament will be as dominated by Brexit as the current one. Meanwhile the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, is more worried about the economic consequences than the Brexit ministers who remain optimistic. Hammond’s Autumn Statement will be as important as any word uttered at the conference. Until then the UK does not have a fully defined economic policy.
In the dark days of winter Brexit will be becoming more obviously thorny and May’s honeymoon will be over
The activists were not especially bothered. Instead the euphoric atmosphere at the Conservative gathering, in the hall and beyond, reminded me of distant events from the party’s past. In the early 1990s the Euro-sceptic Bruges group used to hold packed fringe meetings with the same level of heady excitement. In those days the star guest at their meetings was Michael Portillo. When Portillo spoke there was near euphoria in the air. This was during Portillo’s phase as the tough minded, Euro-sceptic Thatcherite, the Defence Secretary who invoked the SAS as a model for us all to follow. Portillo is a very different public figure now. The mood of those fringe meetings was evangelical. Reason played little part in the speeches or determined proclamations. Now the types who were on the fringes then have won. They are in charge, or May is in charge on their behalf. The Bruges group types have all been on an astonishingly triumphant journey.
Now they embark on a new one, leading the UK out of the EU. Some of May’s allies speak of a complex game of poker. Her tough sounding messages are aimed partly at the rest of the EU. With good cause she believes David Cameron played his hand badly when he carried out his puny renegotiation earlier this year. May calculates that the EU did not feel obliged to offer Cameron very much because it knew all along he would be campaigning to remain. She wants to make sure this time that Angela Merkel and co know she is deadly serious about leaving. She also had to make sure her party could trust her too, not least because she knows she will have to disappoint them at certain points in the most complex series of negotiations the UK has carried out since 1945. She has certainly pulled that one off for now. Her party is adulatory, even if the Cameroons are waiting in the wings wondering where the story will end, as George Osborne put it in a typically mischievous interview. Neither Osborne nor Cameron, the two dominant figures a year ago, attended the conference. Politics is moving at a brutal speed.
So ferocious is the speed that Jeremy Corbyn had not even completed a year in the job as leader of the Labour party before he was challenged, an unprecedented sequence: A leader wins a landslide in September 2015 and faces another contest the following July. The twist in this case is that wholly predictably Corbyn won another landslide, an outcome announced at Labour’s conference in Liverpool.
Corbyn’s party held two conferences, the formal gathering and an alternative organised by Momentum. The Momentum event was upbeat. The formal conference was confused and strange. Labour MPs were more likely to be seen at the Cavern club or taking a ferry across the Mersey than they were in the conference hall. By the end of the week Labour’s policy agenda was far from clear. Clarity is impossible when divisions are deep. All that is clear is that the Labour MPs who opposed Corbyn are inept rebels. Through their ill thought through summer coup they have strengthened Corbyn’s position rather than undermined it. Corbyn has won two leadership contests by landslides during the sunny days of summers. Now autumn descends and he faces the same old insoluble problems with his MPs.
In the dark days of winter Brexit will be becoming more obviously thorny and May’s honeymoon will be over. She has a little more political space than her recent Tory Prime Ministerial predecessors who were brought down by Europe, because Labour is in a seemingly insoluble crisis. For now at least Brexit seems pretty insoluble too. Expect both the main UK Parties to be in turmoil by the time they meet for their conferences next autumn.
Steve Richards is a political columnist and broadcaster. His three part Radio 4 series, The Corbyn Story, is available on BBC iplayer. His one man show Rock N Roll Politics is live at Kings Place on Monday Dec 12th.
Read this article in print here.