How many actual Tories will there be at the Conservative conference?

Andrew Mitchell has his own reasons for staying away, but plenty of other Tories see little purpose in attending.

It is mildly ludicrous that Andrew Mitchell, the chief whip and alleged verbal abuser of police officers, won't be attending his party's annual conference next week. And yet it is not that surprising. He might indeed cause a "distraction" from the business at hand - his excuse for bunking off - and he doesn't have a departmental brief, so he doesn't need to make a speech. So the calculation for Mitchell personally is fairly simple: why bother?

A problem for the Conservative party is that he is not alone in thinking that. Tory MPs have been grumbling more or less openly about their conference and wondering aloud whether or not to show up. The complaint is a familiar one: the whole show is run by and for the benefit of David Cameron's clique; only the favoured, Osborne-groomed ministers will be allowed near a platform or microphone; the whole jamboree is really just an excuse to gouge money from corporate public affairs budgets. (Conferences are very lucrative for governing parties as they hoover up lobbyist cash.)

The same gripes can be heard on the periphery of the Labour and Lib Dem gatherings but in my experience it is the Conservative one that has been most dramatically hollowed out in recent years. (The Lib Dems have a residue of actual democracy at theirs, which makes it worthwhile for members to go and Labour numbers are bolstered by unions, which are a better at mobilising numbers than Conservative associations.)

More seasoned hacks than me were shocked last year by the absence of ordinary delegates at the Tory gathering in Manchester. Senior figures in the party were also alarmed by the sight of empty chairs in the hall when David Cameron gave his keynote address.

Cameron's leadership has accelerated the decline in grassroots participation in the conference. That was inevitable given the way the "modernisers" around the leadership sought to define themselves in explicit contrast with much of what the party had once appeared to represent. The battle-scarred infantry of the Tory wilderness years didn't exactly take kindly to the appearance of a pomaded young cavalry officer riding in and telling them their campaign medals were worth nothing and that their only hope was to march behind him to victory. (They followed him for want of a better plan and never forgave him when victory still proved elusive.) Coalition also means that ordinary Tory activists don't feel ownership of the government's programme. Lib Dems can at least cheer the basic fact of being in power; Tories can only mourn the fact that their power is diluted.

There was a peculiar atmosphere around those early Cameroon conferences. Pushy twenty-something aides and wannabe apparatchiks - barely distinguishable in appearance from their New Labour counterparts a decade earlier - darted around bewildered old gents in navy blazers and regimental ties. The apparatchiks are now ministerial bag-carriers, MPs - or in some cases ministers. The old gents are more likely to make the journey to a Ukip conference than a Tory one. It will be interesting to see how many local association Conservatives come to Birmingham next week.

A final thought on this subject. Ed Miliband has been criticised for failing adequately to challenge his party in Manchester last week. The allegation of tummy-tickling and comfort-zone-coddling is not unfair. As I wrote in my column this week, the specific claim that Miliband entirely ignores the deficit is wrong; the charge that he has yet to offer any practical mechanism for delivering better public services and reversing inequality when there is no money spare is closer to the mark.

It is certainly true that Miliband doesn't deliberately antagonise his party. This is a strategic choice he has made. He has had a look at the way Tony Blair used conflict with "old" Labour and Cameron has used "modernisation"as the device for grabbing public attention and defining themselves as leaders - and concluded that it is not a path worth pursuing. Why? Because it sows the seeds of division and future rebellion, corroding a base of support that is essential to sustain a long-term political project. Cameron must now deeply regret not securing a clearer mandate inside his party for the kind of changes he claimed he wanted to make.

The obvious downside to the Miliband approach is that it looks like weakness - leading in fear of alienating the most tribal element in the party which, by definition, makes it harder to reach across to swing voters. Miliband's "one nation" pitch is an attempt to hold the allegiance of the Labour faithful and extend an invitation to people who naturally support other parties. No wonder it is vague on policy.

There is every reason to think it can't work. Eventually, Miliband will have to confront sections of his party if he is serious about running public services on tighter budgets. There is no denying that Labour unity has been bought with evasion, or at the very least deferral, of some tough choices. But it is worth noting too that the much advertised alternative is over-rated. That is the macho confrontation with the party to prove that everything is changing and that the leader is something rather new and special. It is an approach that worked for a couple of years for David Cameron. It is also the approach that means his disloyal MPs don't feel like showing up to their own annual conference. (And the chief whip won't be there to chide any troublemakers who do go.)

Miliband is aiming for something else: defining his political project not by the dismay of Labour members but through their acclamation. Can it be done? Parties these days seem so marginalised and tribal compared to the rest of society that it seems hard to believe he can pull it off. It will certainly be fascinating to watch him try.

Tory MPs complain that the conference is "run by and for the benefit of David Cameron's clique". Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.