It was 41 years ago that I attended my first party conference – the Conservative and Unionist conference in Blackpool. It’s an event I’ll never forget, not least for seeing a 16-year-old William Hague give his first speech there.
A great deal has changed since those days but party conferences, of whatever hue, continue to be full of predictable ideological chutzpah, entertaining eccentricity and an undisguised elbowing to be the next leader-in-waiting.
In 1977 there were many misogynist noises off-stage about how “Maggie” would not be up to the job and how her adoption of free market economic solutions and holding trade unions to the rule of law would founder.
Fast forward to today and the same doubts are being expressed about Theresa May’s Brexit policy – but they are not behind her back nor are they misogynist – for her accusers include other women Tory politicians (of which there are now many) and they are open and in plain sight.
People such as former cabinet minister Priti Patel and new backbencher Andrea Jenkyns make it plain why they feel let down, betrayed even, by the course the prime minister has taken.
Back in the day it was worth attending the conference sessions and trying to speak; I remember making my own contribution in the debate when Employment Secretary Norman Tebbit famously told the story of how back in the 1930s his unemployed father used to get on his bike to look for work.
Now there are no debates because there are no motions taken from the constituency associations. Instead, conference-goers are fed a thin gruel of ministers passing down their received wisdom without any real challenge.
Ironically this gives ministers less opportunity to introduce humour or appear spontaneous, as they have no one to bounce off or comment on. It means they have to try even harder to entertain the audience and many, too many, are simply not up to the job. It also means the main events are often not in the conference hall but outside it and the wider security zone. The catch phrase for the conference is the demand for the Prime Minister to Chuck Chequers – with t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan worn by grannies and grandchildren – or Chuck Chequers button badges on the lapels of the great and the good.
There are fringe meetings demanding change, on barges (three evenings of Chuck Chequers Canal Cruises) and in bars, theatres and hotels. For what seems a large majority of members attending the Birmingham conference, the Chequers plan is a compromise too far that will only begat further compromises.
It is not, as has been said, “One foot in the EU and one foot out” but both feet firmly in – and dancing a merry jig. Needless to say Theresa May, not someone known for listening to others, is resisting the calls to abandon her Chequers plan that delivers a Brexit in Name Only. If there is to be a climbdown it can only come later, but she is mistaken if she thinks that getting through the conference will get her past the worst.
While some MPs are so let down and demoralised by the prime minister’s open skulduggery and slipperiness – not afraid to say publicly she is now the problem if we want to achieve a good Brexit – many are taking a more polite stance. Jacob Rees Mogg is courtesy personified and whatever you think of Boris Johnson his calls for the PM to change direction are made without attacking her personally.
If Theresa May has not relented within the next fortnight and compromises further I would be most surprised if other MPs do not bring forward a motion of no confidence.
Forty-one years on I still think it’s the leader’s personality that counts, but, believe me, Mrs May is no Margaret Thatcher.