Got the train up to Birmingham yesterday morning. The journey reopened for me one of the great questions of our age: why can you get to Liverpool in two hours by train, yet it takes a little more than that to get to Birmingham which is half the distance? The first thing I went to upon arrival was a panel event around the concept of Conservatives for a People’s Vote. I say panel event, when really it was more like a rally. Speeches from Neil Carmichael, Anna Soubry, Justine Greening and Philip Lee were met with rapturous applause of the type very rarely seen on the fringe circuit at any party conference. What was notable to me was that there was nothing comparable at Labour conference, despite that party’s membership being massively tilted towards Remain.
The event also brought home to me a truth I hadn’t considered in a while: it is so much easier to make a pro-European argument from the centre-right than from the centre-left. When I watched someone like Soubry pontificate upon why Remain should be an option after two years of faffing about, her thesis made coherent sense – the Brits created the single market, in fact it was Thatcher that championed it, the single market is a good thing, leaving it is madness. What is the centre-left equivalent? Um, we like freedom of movement. Okay, well you could just keep that and still leave. Centre-left Europeans always have to do so much apologising for the EU. “Yes, it is a capitalist construct, but it’s vital for jobs! Unity of the European working-classes, or something!”
Tory party conference has somehow conspired to get even bigger and more intimidating this year. The security is like what I imagine they’s have at Davos for the cleaning help. Took me ages to find the one little space where you can get in. Once there, a woman who was dressed as a suffragette while protesting against fracking (I still have no idea what that was about) said to me as I walked past security, “Jeremy Corbyn is in the there”. Much like her get up, I had no clue as to what meaning she was trying to convey to me, if any.
Inside it was predictably full; the atmosphere could be described as tentative. No one has a nice word to say about Theresa May’s leadership, yet no side of the party is calling for her to step down either. This very much feels like calm before the storm.
I did see a lot more “Bollocks to Brexit” pins and and that type of thing walking around than I had seen in previous years, and certainly way more pro-Remain paraphernalia than I would have ever expected. This will get drowned out in the Boris running through wheat saga, or the endless Leave means Leave rallies, all of them inevitably featuring Rees-Mogg and that bloke who owns Wetherspoons. Truth is, while Conservative Party conference is way, way more Brexity than Labour conference was, it is paradoxically more Remainy at the same time. This is because while this feature has been pushed to the hilt by Brexit, the Tories can still openly debate issues in a way Labour cannot. At Labour conference, everything was muffled; it was like no one could really talk about anything of any substance that differed from the leadership line. It was like, yes we’re all Remainery, but the pope isn’t, and to go against the pope just isn’t the done thing. I know some people will get angry at me for saying it, but for this reason alone Tory conference has been somewhat refreshing after Labour. The core of my politics is that we need to talk about important issues of the day, maybe even talk them to death, not sit in our silos insisting we’re correct. And I know, that’s what Liam Fox and Jacob Rees-Mogg are doing to a T, but again, they are only a small part of what’s going on here in Birmingham this week.