Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
The Party Conference season is over. Manchester can return to normal. Exhausted journalists and lobbyists have returned home. MPs go back to Westminster today.
I was delighted to take part in many fringe events – including two for ConservativeHome. As usual, there has been endless analysis of what we learnt from the 2017 party conferences, and here are my seven lessons from our gathering in Manchester.
1. The Conservative Party is fizzing with ideas – it’s just that they were being put forward in the fringe events rather than from the main stage. This presents a challenge for the Party hierarchy. It is clear from the election result that we need to renew our ‘offer’ as a Party. This is, of course, much harder to do when we are in Government, but we must still do it, and Ministers and Downing Street must not be frightened of new ideas. Indeed, they can harness departments to road test them.
2. Once our media get a story they can’t let go – it was just boring to be asked about the Foreign Secretary’s red lines on Brexit all week. A very strong grip from the top and a clear sense of direction is needed so no one wants to step out of line because we are too busy focusing on taking the fight to the Socialists.
3. The Prime Minister issued a heartfelt and sincere apology for the mistakes made in the general election campaign. This was a wise move and appreciated by Party members. It echoed the apology she made to MPs in the 1922 meeting held on the Monday after the election. We must never see a repeat of those mistakes.
4. Party members are fed up with being side-lined. It would be impossible for the Party to take any major decisions in the future without consulting them. There was a genuine sense of grievance, particularly at the excellent and packed ConservativeHome fringe meeting on campaigning which I spoke at, along with Robert Halfon and Andrew Kennedy, that policy suggestions and campaigning ideas from members are never listened to. Members want a lot more for their £25 annual membership fee than they are currently getting.
5. Party members know that we have a problem both with our image and our falling and ageing membership. The defence of capitalism, free enterprise and the markets by the Chancellor and Theresa May was welcome but we have a long, long way to go to convince voters, particularly younger voters, that we are authentic, caring and sincere in what we say and believe. Party members understand this, and are ready for the fight ahead.
6. It was possible to have Conservative MPs with very different views on Europe debating in a civilised way on platforms together. With the Florence speech the Prime Minister had more than started to find an approach to Brexit which we could all unite around. And, in tune with the rest of the country, delegates wanted to debate domestic policy and the future direction of the Party, not Europe.
7. I found speaking at 13 fringe meetings, attending 14 separate meetings, dinners and events and giving endless interviews and comments to the press in two and a half days to be exhausting. Whoever thought it would be a good idea for the Prime Minister to do over 20 media interviews and speak at around 20 receptions let her down badly. She is a highly conscientious woman who does what is asked of her. Like most women she probably isn’t good at saying “no” – so her staff need to do it for her.