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Welcome to the alternative conference season

The coming week will offer two possible paths ahead for the Conservative Party. Both are bad, but one is downright sinister

Secretary of State for the Home Department Suella Braverman leaves 10 Downing Street after attending the weekly Cabinet meeting. Photo: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Party political conferences are, on the whole, extremely dull. I’ve sat through my fair share. Occasionally you get a good one – the stage set gradually collapsing behind a bronchial Theresa May being a standout. But on the whole, party conferences have all the excitement of a poorly-attended trade convention.

But for the first time, we are heading into what looks like an alternative conference season. This Saturday, an organisation calling itself the Conservative Democratic Organisation will hold its “Take Control Conference and Gala Dinner” in Bournemouth. “The exact venue will be confirmed to you in the weeks before the event, for security reasons,” says the website. That mention of “security”, along with the promise of “very special guests” appearing on the night and the presence of Nadine Dorries on the speakers’ line-up of course means only one thing – Boris. 

Yes, it looks very much like this coastal shindig, which is being run and presumably also paid for by Lord Cruddas, is part of the long-threatened Boris Johnson re-launch. The website offers the chance to “Take back control” in the daytime and “then in the evening we invite you to lose control on the dance floor,” a gag with a strong Johnsonian flavour. Tickets for the dinner are now going at half-price, yours for £40. Attendees can “join like-minded patriots who, like you, want to save our party and our country”. Diners can enjoy speeches from, among others, Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

You then have a day to sleep it off before jumping on a train to London for the start of the “National Conservatism” conference, which runs from Monday to Wednesday. This is a much larger affair, and one shaped in more of a traditional party conference style. It also appears to be a much more “high-fibre” event, and includes speeches from, among others, Michael Gove, Suella Braverman, Jacob Rees Mogg (him again), Lee Anderson, David Frost, and so on and so on…

Also appearing on the roster is the author Matthew Goodwin. The conference programme says that he will discuss “The failures of British Conservatism”. Another of the speakers is David Goodhart, the founding editor of Prospect magazine (disclaimer – I used to work for Prospect, though not under his editorship), who will pose the question “Is a Post-Nationalist Nation-Statism Possible?” Daniel Hannan, the former MEP who used to be known as the “Brain of Brexit”, will deliver a speech entitled: “What would Edmund do?” a reference to Edmund Burke, the statesman and thinker.

And here we begin to sense the political character of these two alternative-style conferences. When the Tories lose the 2024 general election, conservatism itself will be perceived as having failed. It will have delivered electoral defeat, and worse, it will have handed over the great Brexit project in its unfinished state to the Labour Party, which will surely begin to dismantle it. Conservatism will need to change. These conferences appear to suggest two different ways in which that change might occur.

The Bournemouth shindig – which looks suspiciously like a pro-Johnson rally – is a straightforward pitch to the Tory membership. The bumph on the website promises that the Conservative Democratic Organisation will push for a campaign that gives local party members a much bigger say in selecting – and deselecting – MPs and in directing policy. All of this is framed in the language of “taking back control”, i.e. the language of Brexit, patriotism, Boris Johnson and little England. 

It is, in other words, the Tory equivalent of Momentum, that left wing project that was also built around the brief popularity of a now thoroughly disgraced political leader. For that reason, the Bournemouth event seems little more than an outgrowth of Johnson’s colossal – and colossally misguided – political egotism. 

The London National Conservatism conference appears to be more substantial. For starters, the name “National Conservatism” carries with it some pretty unnerving historical resonance. Did no one stop to think about that? 

Several of the people who will address the London conference cross into some very unnerving political territory. These are not marginal figures, but high profile individuals, who write for influential publications, and who write widely-reviewed books. Some are proponents of what is known as “replacement theory”, that is, the idea that white Britons are somehow under threat from non-white immigrants and that this “replacement” of white people with other races poses a threat to British culture. 

It seems then that this conference represents precisely what its name suggests – the beginnings of an overtly nationalist political tendency within British political life. The chief concerns of nationalist politics are on the one hand national identity and on the other the urgent need to preserve and protect that national identity from perceived threats. Or to put it in the words of Lee Anderson, the Conservative Party’s deputy chairman, who is also speaking at the conference, “If you do not wish to live in a country that has a monarchy the solution is not to turn up with your silly boards. The solution is to emigrate.”

This is a very new type of party conference season. It is also rather sinister. A divided Conservative Party is about to receive a blastwave of anger from the loud, over-confident fringe, convinced that the party wasn’t hardline enough, wasn’t tough enough on immigration, wasn’t confrontational enough with Europe and that the answer is to go further – to be even more combative, even more determined, to push even harder to defend Britain’s interests. And if the Conservative Party does take on a new nationalist character of that kind, then it will have taken a long stride into the dark.

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