There are some odd reversals at this year’s Tory conference. Old-hand outsider Vanessa Pine and conference newbie and party insider Sophia Stileman, reflect on three days spent in Manchester…
Topsy Turvey demographics
The attitudes here in the fringes and the bars are demographically at odds with the rest of the country. The ‘old’ people (aka over about the age of 35) in attendance are mostly one-time remainers worried about trashing the Supreme Court, worried about Executive over-reach, worried about the apparent lack of conservatism within their Conservative Party.
In the population at large young people are generally the most pro-European. By contrast the young people sporting their baby blue conference lanyards here are devoutly pro-Leave and are much less bothered by the old tenets of conservatism. They are happy to trash the institutions standing in the way of their ultimate aim, to “get Brexit done.”
Although conferences always attract the hard core of any party’s members, this year’s crop make for a discomforting, weirdly zealous sight en mass: the “Get Brexit Done” chants, the tweed suits, and singing Rule Britannia in the bar. Apparently even their home team finds them a bit much. Dominic Cummings’ Sunday night drinking pal told Politico “we’d have stayed at the bar if there weren’t so many of these weird young Tories trying to get selfies with him.” I saw Stanley Johnson also being papped and commended on having such a great son.
But (other than selfies) what motivates this new generation? Atlas Partners resident Brexiteer Sophia reflects “There is a group of very politicised young tory activists emerging – in my opinion they’ve become increasingly motivated over the last three years as Brexit still has not been delivered. Having had a lot of chats with my peers in the party and it’s clear they all really back Boris quite dogmatically.”
Despite previous criticisms that the party was failing to reach out to new generations of voters, efforts to address this seem to be paying dividends. Sophia again says “This may be down to a rise in membership of university associations – even in my own time at Warwick our membership more than doubled. The traditional ‘young tory’ image is becoming slightly outdated. It is still a bit of a tweed-fest, but in the time I spent at the Young Conservatives stand at least half the people there were women, many were BAME and fewer were from London.”
The other notable shift this year was that those who were previously relegated to the fringes, the minority of “swivel-eyed loons” eurosceptics, are now riding high. They are in the cabinet and on the main conference stage. Whereas, the “moderates” and former cabinet members are relegated to the fringes, or even staying away altogether - using the lack of Parliamentary recess as an excuse. Dominic Grieve was there flying the flag for those still fighting for the soul of their party, but he cut a lonely figure.
Again not, trusting my outsider’s eyes, I turned to insiders to verify this feeling. Sophia confirmed “Even though I’m a weird young enthusiastic Tory I was really taken aback by the level of defiance and dominance of group’s traditionally kept on the outskirts of the party. I’ve been delighted with the positive vibes from pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to, but when you push beneath the ‘StandUp4Brexit’ ‘we’re going to be free again’ stuff – a lot of the awkward questions are left unanswered.”
Many members and attendees alike were also concerned by increasing criticism of “the mainstream media”. Coming from the upper echelons of a party that traditionally stood for free speech, they seemed paradoxically unwilling to engage with difficult questions. On Monday, Andrea Jenkyns MP launched a strong attack on Sky and the BBC and when probed further she resorted to woolly personal anecdotes. At another fringe meeting, a journalist from the Huffington Post was boo-ed by the audience for asking former Minister for Women and now Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Nicky Morgan how she felt about the allegations from a senior Sunday Times journalist that Boris Johnson had sexually assaulted her at a Spectator party twenty years ago.
Even those in favour of seeing it happen know Brexit won’t be delivered through passionate speeches alone. All the while the Conservative leadership dodges the awkward questions, we’re getting closer and closer to another extension.
Brand values at stake
Lastly this conference crystallised some other challenges that the Tories are tackling, slightly below the radar. Brexit was not an inherently conservative move, it was disruptive. Beyond the much-reported split it has created between traditional eurosceptics and moderates there seem to be other Tory values as risk from the new regime.
Traditionally the party of fiscal discipline, the Tories of today have abandoned austerity with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Before Sajid Javid’s speech this week, people anticipated he would be something of a continuation of Osborne, perhaps speculating about a little give in the purse strings. But the party’s new spending plans are extensive. We’ve also seen Kwasi Kwarteng, another free marketeer, stating he doesn’t think market solutions will resolve climate crisis. These surprisingly unconservative policies haven’t gone unnoticed.
Of course all this may have something to do with retail politics in advance of a General Election but it certainly made for the least conservative, conservative conference we’ve been to in twenty years.