Tory backbenchers are already fed up of Boris and his grandstanding

PUBLISHED: 12:00 05 October 2017

A fan listens to Boris Johnson delivering his speech at the Conservative conference. Photo: PA Wire / PA Images

A fan listens to Boris Johnson delivering his speech at the Conservative conference. Photo: PA Wire / PA Images

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As conference season draws to a close, former Tory candidate turned radio talk show host IAIN DALE charts the fortunes of those who have been on manoeuvres – and makes some tentative predictions/

Back in early April, Theresa May was mistress of all she surveyed. Her first eight months had been a success. She was in control of her party, had a 20 point opinion poll lead and couldn’t seem to put a foot wrong. And then it all went wrong.

It wasn’t calling the election that was necessarily the wrong decision, it was the fact that her party wasn’t geared up to fighting it. But it went deeper than that. As Lord Ashcroft points out in his new book The Lost Majority, the electorate don’t like unnecessary elections. Brenda in Bristol could have told him that. “Not another one,” she memorably exclaimed.

The Tory Party manifesto had no policies which were easy to sell to wavering voters on the doorstep, but it had plenty to put them off. The supposedly Brexit election turned into an election about anything except Brexit. The voters blew Theresa May a giant raspberry, although not quite a big enough one to eject her from Downing Street.

Initially, her Cabinet ministers protested their loyalty. First David Davis, then Boris Johnson and then Philip Hammond told her they were with her. But four months on, only Davis can be said to have remained totally loyal – ironic given his reputation.

And here we are in Manchester, attending a party conference which, if the media is to be believed, is dominated by talk of leadership struggles. The trouble with the media at party conferences is that they exist in a bubble entirely made up of other media representatives. They don’t deliberately act as a sort of cartel and ‘agree’ the story, it’s more subtle than that.

Rather than talk to actual conference go-ers – they’re not called delegates at a Conservative conference, they’re ‘representatives’ – they talk to each other to create a narrative. I’ve seen it happen at virtually every party conference I have been to since 1985.

I remember one year following Jeremy Paxman around a conference in Bournemouth and observing who he talked to. It was journalist after journalist. He didn’t talk to a single Conservative. Later that night he told Newsnight viewers: “I’ve been talking to Conservatives all around the conference today, and they’re not happy with their leader.” Go figure.

To be sure, the mood at this conference is a complete contrast to that in Brighton last week, where hubris was the order of the day. Talk to delegates there (and I did!) and many of them think the next election is already in the bag. The next election is, in all likelihood, more than four and a half years away. Who can predict what will happen over the next four years to change the face of British politics? Four years ago, in 2013, no one could have predicted a Brexit referendum would have happened, let alone that the Leave side would go on to win it.

Just as Theresa May’s fortunes disappeared down a black hole in a three week period, so could Jeremy Corbyn’s. However, I think it is highly unlikely the Tories will be so complacent as to rely on that happening. They’re busy analysing why they didn’t win the election, even if they didn’t lose it. Eric Pickles published his review of the election campaign on Sunday, with 126 recommendations as to what needs to change. That’s 126.

They even published the report in full online, even if it proved unreadable on a mobile phone. Typical of the incompetence of the CCHQ digital media strategy.

By contrast, in Brighton there was no attempt to understand why Labour failed to win against the most incompetent election campaign in recent electoral history. Why did Labour lose seats to the Conservatives in some formerly staunch Labour areas, like Mansfield and Walsall? No one in the Labour Party seems to care. They need their very own Lord Ashcroft. He’d tell them that the ‘one more heave’ approach to winning elections rarely works. But they’d still be carried away and continue to chant ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn…’ ad nauseum for the next four years.

At the end of the party conference season it’s interesting to note that both main parties seem to have an almost identical Brexit policy. Both agree on a transitional period. Both agree we stay in the single market and customs unions during the transitional period. There’s even a broad consensus around the length of the transitional period. They both agree that following a deal with the EU that the US should be the first to be targeted for a free trade agreement. It has to be said that the Tories have moved more towards the Labour position rather than the other way around.

There is certainly some disquiet and fear among grassroots Tories. Like most Ukippers, there is a genuine fear that they will be sold out on Brexit – that somehow, we’re never really going to leave. They really believe that they may be staying at the Hotel California, where people can check out but no one ever leaves. There’s another line in that song which is relevant to the current Brexit debate and it rather sums up the different Brexit perspectives on offer at the Tory conference – ‘this could be heaven or this could be hell’.

On the one hand you have Boris Johnson with his infectious optimism for what Britain will be like after Brexit, and on the other hand you have Philip Hammond whose motto should be ‘it’s being this cheerful that keeps me going’. If one phrase summed up Hammond’s approach to Brexit it’s ‘gloom and doom’. Rather than concentrate on any positives, he delights in pointing out all the problems and difficulties. Ok, it’s his job. He’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but as a way of promoting party unity, it doesn’t exactly help.

Talk to many Tory backbenchers, and they already are. They’re fed up with his recent grandstanding. They view it as completely self-indulgent. Bearing in mind that to win a leadership election he has to be in the final two MPs selected by Tory MPs, there are growing doubts as to whether he could achieve that. The 2015 and 2017 intakes of new MPs are said to be less than impressed with the Foreign Secretary.

Theresa May may not be at ‘peak May’ at the moment, but she’s survived the summer and unless she voluntarily decides to fall on her sword, it’s difficult to see circumstances where she would be formally challenged. I can’t see 48 Tory MPs signing a collective suicide note and writing letters to Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee, asking for a confidence vote in the Prime Minister. Anything is possible in today’s politics, I suppose, but it would be the equivalent of turkeys voting for Christmas.

None of Theresa May’s current potential successors have the balls to challenge her, and if they were going to do that, it should have been done in June or July. No Tory would forgive a challenger now, especially as if a new leader was elected there would be massive calls for another general election. And if that were called, I genuinely believe Labour would win it. And that’s why it won’t happen.

And that’s why Johnson’s time may have come and gone. Davis has been utterly loyal to Theresa May and has never allowed any disagreement between them to emerge into the public arena. Had she resigned in the summer, he would have been her most likely successor. But that time has also come and gone.

There are no other viable successors at the moment. Amber Rudd is seen as too much of an arch Remainer and has yet to prove herself in the Home Office, although it has to be said she’s made a very good start in that ‘bed of nails’ department. The size of her majority in Hastings will also dog her chances in the long term.

Most of the other names mentioned are untested in high office, and many of them aren’t even members of the government yet. If you want a long-term bet, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugendhat is worth keeping an eye on, as is immigration minister Brandon Lewis, who is tipped to succeed Patrick McLoughlin as party chairman. And from the 2017 intake, Bim Afolami and Kemi Badenoch have impressed. But they and others need to be given a chance to prove themselves.

I am not convinced that it is beyond the realms of possibility that Theresa May could deliver on her intention to fight the next election as Tory leader, but I wouldn’t put the chances at more than 20%. The most likely scenario is that she stands down in the summer of 2019 or 2021. And that’s when the real fun starts.

*Just so you know, as I finish this article I’m listening to a song on my phone by the Boomtown Rats called The Elephants Graveyard. I’ll leave you to decide what that’s a metaphor for.

  • Iain Dale presents LBC Radio’s Drivetime show 4-7pm weekdays

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