There was a time – in my political journalist life many moons ago – when I couldn’t imagine NOT being at the party conferences. This year, in a third and very different phase of my life, at both Labour and Tory Conferences, I couldn’t wait to get away.
There was the period of my life with Tony Blair when the leader’s speech to the annual conference was one of the most important moments in the calendar. Blood, sweat and tears flowed. And despite the pain (see my Diaries volumes 1-6 for full gory details) it felt like it was worth it. This year, in a third and very different phase of my life, at both Labour and Tory Conferences, I couldn’t wait to get away. Before the Corbynistas start howling, this is not an anti-Jeremy point. He and his are in total control of the party. They have won the argument inside Labour as to what kind of party it should be. That is their right and they have better organisation, a better than expected election performance by Corbyn, a better than expected result, an excitement created by lots of young people, and Theresa May, to thank for it. But my partner Fiona put it very well, she too having spent less than a day by the seaside: ‘That is not our tribe any more.’ On the train back someone asked me – it happens all the time in divided, polarised Brexit Britain – ‘When are we going to get a new party?’ And I thought ‘maybe we already have one. It’s just that they haven’t changed the name.’ I was there for the same reason I went to the Tories’ – to speak at the anti-Brexit rally. There were good crowds for both. Yet despite Brexit being the defining historic event of our times it felt very much like these rallies were divorced from the main action, barely covered on what we must now seemingly call MSM. In Manchester, the leadership psychodramas were deemed more interesting. In Brighton, Brexit was not front of mind for the Corbynistas, and the non-Corbynistas were in the main going along with that. If Jeremy doesn’t want a vote on Brexit and the single market, we’re not having one. That is what I found most depressing of all. The juxtaposition of all these young people fired up by the anti-austerity message, alongside my certain conviction that if we pursue the Corbyn-McDonnell path on Brexit then, down the road of a Labour government, lies betrayal that risks ranking alongside Iraq for Tony Blair and tuition fees for Nick Clegg in terms of the scale of disappointment among many former supporters. Corbyn was master of all he surveyed. In Brighton. But out in the country I am yet to feel it. How else do we explain a government as useless and divided as this one, with a zombie Prime Minister and perhaps the most third-rate cabinet of all time, still holding their own in the (admittedly discredited) polls?
My daytrip to Manchester didn’t provide me with the answer. Whereas the mood in Brighton had at least been lively and energetic, the Tory conference was like a morgue by comparison. As Boris Johnson took his shame-proof ego for another long walk through the media landscape he should frankly never have left – he is a journalist, dear reader, not a statesman, despite his Churchill complex – and as May lurched from one robotic and sad-looking interview to the next, the conference had the feel of a cartoon, a slow-mo multiple pile up and a collective nervous breakdown rolled into one.It is hard to feel sympathy for a Prime Minister who has put herself in the position of doing a job she can’t do, and trying to manage a task she can’t manage – namely Brexit and the impossible contradictions both in her positions and in those of her party. It was hard however not to feel some pity. She seemed crushed inside. She is the seventh Tory leader to be brought low by the seeming impossibility of uniting her party over Europe. If Johnson succeeds in his efforts to replace her, he will become the eighth, and his role in the Leave campaign, which may help him among the increasingly decrepit-looking Tory members who elect the leader now, will damage him if he manages to get his hands on the country. When we was lying his way through the referendum campaign, we knew little about what Brexit Britain would look like. Now we are beginning to know more. The pound worth less – because of Brexit. Rising prices – because of Brexit. Our falling standing in the world – because of Brexit. From the top of the G7 growth league to the bottom – because of Brexit. The investors making plans to move – because of Brexit. EU workers leaving our NHS and our schools and universities, not welcome – because of Brexit. Fruit unpicked in East Anglia – because of Brexit. The Irish border question unresolved and imperiling stability and peace there – because of Brexit. The rights of millions uncertain – because of Brexit. The most complex negotiations imaginable in the hands of a cabinet incapable of meeting for five minutes without splurging their differences through the media to the other side of the negotiating table. A foreign secretary driven by ego alone; a Prime Minister too weak to deal with it. Yet, as I said at both rallies, it now seems that no matter the evidence, no matter the cost, no matter the chaos, the Tories say they have to make it happen. Jeremy Corbyn even goes as far as to say it should happen, because if we were in the single market or the EU, a Labour government could not implement the policies in its manifesto. No, Jeremy. That is not true. We who fear Brexit takes Britain into decline must fight for what we believe in with every bit as much passion and energy as the Brexiteers fight for what they believe in. Let them argue for hard or soft Brexit. Let us, if we believe it is the right thing for Britain, fight for no Brexit at all. This is not about my love of Europe. It is about my love for Britain. And my fear about what kind of country we are leaving to our children and our grandchildren. Let’s give them back the future they need and want not take it away as Brexit surely will.’ As to whether Johnson will be the person to lead the country through what is fast becoming a Brexit crisis, logic and experience says no. But in a world where Donald Trump is president, where Vladimir Putin can help him become so and most Americans seem not to care, where Brexit can be won on a pack of lies and the chief liar gets promoted to one of the great offices of state and is seemingly unsackable because his boss is so weakened, then frankly anything can happen. As for Johnson’s Churchill complex, you and I know the comparison is grotesque, like comparing Mozart with karaoke, Van Gogh with Rolf Harris, or Diego Maradona with your mate who plays on Hackney Marshes. But there are few so blind as those who cannot see beyond their own interests, their own ego, the end of their own nose or any other appendage, and the complex means Johnson feels he is a man of destiny and Downing Street will fall his way. It could be that May is so screwed, and the Tory Party so desperate, that he turns out to be right. Equally it could be Corbyn just has to sit tight and it will fall his way. Either way, politics and the country do not feel in a good place right now. By Johnson’s media-obsessed reckoning, he probably thinks he had a good week. But having known him, and several members of his family for many years now, his conduct past and present gives me hope. For it makes me ask this question: If your own family think you are a liar, a cheat and a charlatan, who puts self before Britain then why on earth do you imagine the country will think any different?