The overwhelming sense on Sunday night, at the start of the Conservative Party’s conference was that it is going to be a long four days. There is no doubt that the Tories are aware that there needs to be an extraordinary show of unity within the party to match the surprise professionalism of Labour last week in Liverpool. Sadly, for the Conservatives, their own radicals are not so well behaved.
Leading into the first day of Conference, Boris Johnson’s attack on the PM in the Sunday Times set the tone for what is to be expected over the coming days; posturing for anyone who thinks that they can do the job better than Theresa May. What form and who will take that mantel depends on who you talk to. The Tory Reform Group would like it to be someone like Nicky Morgan MP, who spoke on the politics of “inclusion not exclusion” at their reception on Sunday night. Look further to your right and the mood is quite different – Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Gove and others are making their own headlines so that they can undermine the Prime Minster and her plan for Brexit at every turn. Rumours of a no-confidence vote circulated in the Hyatt Regency bar and have cropped up again and again over the last twelve months.
But does the membership really want to see Theresa May pack her bags and leave Number 10? At the moment, there is an overwhelming sense that May would lose a General Election to Corbyn if the vote was called tomorrow. This is what is driving May’s support within the party at present – the overwhelming urge to govern the country at all costs and avoid letting Labour slip in to Number 10. Conservative members don’t want to risk changing leader if it might lead to a General Election, or if it damages the Party enough to make a Labour victory possible.
But can the Conservatives manage to keep it together and not rip each other apart in the next few days? That depends. Europe has historically been the defining fault line in the Conservative Party – the scourge of Mrs Thatcher and Mr Major – and the present seismic activity on the issue of the UK’s future relationship with Europe will overtake anything else the Party wants to talk about. The Party leadership needs the Party to look as though it is working together for the country and to find a solution that works for everyone. As ever, the Party has a life of its own.
This conference will play out in the headlines of the newspapers and on Twitter. The challenge for the Conservatives is whether any of that coverage will be positive.
Authored by Kenneth Pritchard