The auditorium used in Manchester for this Conservative Conference has been shrunk. The organisers have abandoned any pretence of preserving the big spaces of old, exemplified by the rococo splendour of Blackpool Winter Gardens. The change is a visual metaphor for the event.
That Priti Patel won a standing ovation yesterday illustrated the nature of the change. The Home Secretary is languishing near the bottom of our Cabinet League Table. So either it is unrepresentative of activists (here’s why we think not), or else something else is going on. We think that the something else is that only the most committed Party members sit through the speeches.
The others can scarcely be blamed. Dominic Raab pledged to overhaul the Human Rights Act; Patel promised to stop the channel boats. But the surest route to the latter isn’t the former. It would be leaving the European Convention of Human Rights – and, even with the Government in confrontational mode over the Northern Ireland Protocol, this looks very unlikely to happen.
For the Convention is written into the Belfast Agreement, and a central part of Ministers’ case against the Protocol is that its operations have turned out to be inconsistent with the Agreement, which is to be prized. So the law and order section of the Conference was illustrative of the lack of significant announcements.
Rishi Sunak’s £500 million to support work in the wake of furlough was perhaps an exception (though how will it be funded)? And Boris Johnson himself may go today where his Cabinet may not. But this has fundamentally been a news-free conference, and so one in which Ministers have been free to chant their lines undisturbed, amidst a mass of people happy to be out of lockdown and meeting again.
The Prime Minister himself is king of this reunion at which nothing much so far has happened, uncontested ruler of his party, and owner for the moment of the political landscape.
At Westminster and amidst his party, he has looked better placed since the Chancellor saw off the revolt over the 0.7 per cent cut. During this conference season, Keir Starmer has failed to cut through in the polls, and Labour’s recovery looks like a work in progress. Johnson is set, as matters stand, for a second term.
But if what’s taken place in conference auditorium has been bland, the action on the fringe has been as lively as ever. How many of the participants have been corporates and how many members have been activists is difficult to say. But the Think Tent helped to keep the sharp end of debate up, and members were present in numbers at our own events.
Their belief in Brexit may be fervent, but their flavour is mild – more Cameron-era, one might have thought, than Johnson-flavoured. Perhaps most of the harder-lined members don’t bother to come to the conference at all. But these softer-edged ones are no walkover, nonetheless.
Put plainly, no-one much here in Manchester is swallowing the suggestion, implied by the Prime Minister’s framing of debate, that lower migration will in itself deliver higher wages – not sustainably, at any rate. A big debate is beginning about the future of the British economy, as it becomes evident that some of the changes we’re seeing are features of this post-Brexit, post-Covid age.
Will higher wages be eaten up by higher prices? Will interest rates rise substantially for the first time in a generation? How big would the increase in unemployment then be? Or will productivity gains come to rescue us? But how likely are they to do so when taxes as a percentage of GDP are forecast to rise to their highest level since the early 1950s, and the state is bigger than at any time since 1946?
Britain has changed much since the 1970s, but these questions are substantially the same as then. If many voters aren’t asking them yet, that’s because higher inflation and rates are, for a mass of middle-aged and younger ones, outside their adult experience.
If and when that changes, the political backdrop will change too. This conference has seen an absence of announcements but the presence of debate, outside it as well as inside. Which we read as a sign of hope.