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Will Tory conference be a phoney war?

The prime minister got an easier ride than expected over Brexit at a private meeting of senior Conservative activists this morning.

By Patrick Maguire

One of the lesser-known fixtures of Conservative Party conference is the meeting of the party’s National Convention, which Theresa May attended this morning.

Made up of constituency association chairmen and other party officers, it is the supreme body of the Tories’ voluntary wing and the closest they come to internal democracy. Convention members are given the chance to grill their party leader behind closed doors on the Sunday of conference, and so it was this morning.

Much is made of the disquiet at the Tory grassroots over the prime minister’s Brexit strategy, and Downing Street’s attempts to sell her Chequers deal to association chairman over the summer went disastrously. This morning, however, the prime minister got a much easier ride than expected.

The room was largely sympathetic to May, if not Chequers. “By and large, the line of questioning was loyal,” says one attendee. “There is a lot of sympathy for her personally, but not much for the government’s plan.” Some have grumbled that the questioning on Brexit was conspicuously soft and probably planted by the party hierarchy.

As such, she said very little that was new. And nor did the many opponents of Chequers, whose fundamental request – like that of David Davis, who made the same point this morning – is for the prime minister to reconsider her plans, not her position.

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As was the case in her BBC interview this morning, the prime minister said little of substance. “A mishmash of the usual lines,” is how one MP in the room describes it. She ruled out calling a general election to clear the Brexit impasse and insisted, invoking Barack Obama (or, indeed, the title of Ruth Davidson’s new book), that Britain would strike free trade deals with the EU, USA, and Japan: “Yes we can!”

So despite the popular conception that the Conservative grassroots are a) mutinous and b) yearning for Boris Johnson to depose May, the mood in the room was more flat than febrile. We are of course only one day into conference but it feels as if that could be the underwhelming reality of the three days to come. (Tellingly, the biggest cheer in the room came not for a complaint about Chequers but the prosecutions of Troubles veterans.)

Conference is happening in a liminal space between conflagrations over Chequers. Neither camp in the Tory civil war has anything new to say: Brexiteers, be they at the grassroots or in the parliamentary party, do not like Chequers. But by and large, they do not want to change their leader until April at the earliest. The leadership is unwilling to change its Brexit policy and its loyalists are defending it.

There is little anyone, even Boris Johnson, can do or say to change that dynamic. Short of the former foreign secretary using his speech on the fringe on Tuesday to call for the prime minister to go – which his past form, character and the challenging realities of deposing her suggest he won’t – he is unlikely to shift the dial. Nor will May. For now, we are in phoney war territory.