The best way to think about the Conservative Party Conference is as a trade fair. You start at a stall for BAE Systems, the arms company. If you want to see the speeches, the entrance to the auditorium is just by Philip Morris International, the tobacco giant, at the back. Scattered between the exhibits, an afterthought: a smattering of baffled councillors and MPs drinking tepid machine coffee and trying to find people to talk to about politics.
Whereas Labour and the Liberal Democrats use their annual party conference to make decisions on postures and policies, the Tories use it to make money. They brought in £5.3 million from the conferences in 2018. The Liberal Democrats, whose conference probably attracts similar numbers of actual door-knocking leafleteers, brought in about £100,000.
There’s a trick to how they get the cash rolling in (and it helps to be in government, of course): the party is selling a strange sort of access. At regular intervals, a glassy-eyed cabinet minister is frogmarched in to feign interest in the stalls.
A video promoting the conference to would-be exhibitors shows Liam Fox, who was once forced to stand down as defence secretary because he allowed a lobbyist to travel around the world with him while posing as his adviser, grinning away at the Cayman Islands stall.
These strange processions move around the hall with reasonable regularity. There is a good sport in watching harried advisers attempt to shield their masters from the party members who come to collar them. Conference, remember, is not an event for the activists: card-carrying Tories are a modest minority – put off by high prices and a lack of opportunities to take part.
So the cross-section of members you get is strange. It is weirdly male, for example. And this is one place where it is easy to find young Tories. This year, they seemed, somehow, extra. Drab Manchester bars on Sunday night, usually a backdrop for messy karaoke, instead heaved with this odd crowd. Most looked dressed for job interviews, but a decent number seemed ready to bag themselves some pheasants.
It was striking, though, who wasn’t there. Tory internal warfare is different to the other parties’. Labour’s internal struggles play out in elections to committees and through bureaucratic in-fighting. But Tories do not have such mechanisms. What the leader says, goes. So civil war takes the form of dropping out.
In previous years, you got a decent number of pragmatic councillors, weary of radical reform plans. Proper Tories – heirs of Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott. They can be quite technocratic, doing politics in the same way other people volunteer at charities. Their conservatism is temperamental – as much about how we are as what we do. Most will support Brexit – but maybe not this government’s excesses.
I certainly found some, and they were indeed worried about all this inflamed rhetoric and talk of breaking the law. The lying, too, and the aggression. But there were fewer than usual. I also struggled to find many specimens of their natural allies: the now-lesser-spotted liberal Tories – the grouping once known as the Cameroons.
Some members of these departing tribes will not go quietly: Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general who has been thrown out of the Conservative parliamentary party, was a very visible presence, doing laps of the hall and conspicuously meeting members. He responded to meeting a prominent Liberal Democrat by trying to recruit him to join his end of the Tories.
I started ringing some members of this bit of the party, seeking to work out where they were. I ran into a party stalwart in London, who thought my question – “have you been in Manchester?” – was ridiculous. Some, though, were in Manchester – often as lobbyists. But I also found half a dozen people who’ve served the last two Tory prime ministers at the very highest levels who have left the party since the current leader took over.
These are not people who would be considered pro-EU. All accepted the need to leave – and, in one case, voted for it. Some fought directly for May’s deal. They and their ilk in the membership are drifting away. Some have switched, for now at least, to the Lib Dems. Jo Swinson, their leader, is a hardline unionist. And they see little for them left in the Tories.
A few years ago, these are people who would have been pleased at the idea of Boris Johnson as party leader – one of their own. Indeed, much of his speech to the hall – optimistic, heavy on the environment, big on public spending – would be welcome to them. But Brexit has consumed all.
The party that is left is pretty united. They’re pro-Brexit, and there was a lot of fannish devotion to the dear leader. I asked a lot of members about the prime minister’s personal morality: he has lately been accused of giving public funds to an alleged mistress and groping a junior colleague at a work event. But all I got was shrugs. He’s their man. Even if he extends the EU departure date beyond this month, they like him. They think he’s trying.
On the face of it, the party is in a good place. It is still leading in the polls – and the official messaging is still often optimistic and broad. Their chances of converting their position into a majority are reasonable. It is not much of an agenda for anything other than an election campaign – but that’s all they really want.
But there are risks, even there. For all the sunny words from the prime minister, his henchmen’s sotto voce briefings are unpleasant and snide. The party’s tone easily turns narrow and mean. It has sought to divide, not to unite. In the fringes, there was a lot of talk of enemies – whether Tories like Michael Heseltine, journalists or our friends and allies in Europe. And not from lone whackos – MPs were leading the boos.
This is also a party that is losing its ability to speak liberal. They expect to lose seats to the Lib Dems – maybe a lot of them. The usual estimate is 25 or so to the Liberals – and maybe 10 to the SNP.
Swinson has been the big winner of this conference season. Over the past few weeks, the rumours of good news for the Lib Dems from their Tory-facing seats continues to seep out. There is some early evidence that her unequivocal pro-Remain stance is attracting support in the places she needs them.
She may do a lot of damage to a Tory party that is not seeking to reach out. In the pressure of an election, the bitterness of the conference fringe might seep out. It reminded me a bit of the Tories under Michael Howard in the mid-2000s. It is also extremely English – and posh English, at that.
That’s all stuff to watch, as they wheel around to try to build a majority by hoovering up pro-Brexit votes in Wales, the midlands and the north of England from people who’ve historically given the Conservatives a wide berth. “Get Brexit done” is their key message. If only that were possible: we have years of negotiation and a generation of acrimony to follow. It’ll never be over.
Activists I spoke to hope the lost liberal Tories will float back after we leave the EU. I’m unsure. Europe is a signifier in a culture war. This is it, now. This Tory coalition looks more to Donald Trump’s coalition than David Cameron’s. The people who read Edmund Burke may not be coming back to conference.
All photographs Getty Images.