Last week in Brighton, Labour strong-armed the debate on the detailed issues about Brexit. This week in Manchester, the Conservatives have done almost exactly the same thing in their own way. Anyone who – like the European parliament, which debated the state of the Brexit process on Tuesday – was looking for clarity or precision from the Brexit session in Manchester will have come away disappointed and none the wiser. The Conservative party is divided from the cabinet downwards over the key issues. Yet those divisions were never examined on the conference floor during an afternoon that was rich in ministerial smugness but devoid of deeper content. Since unity and survival are the names of the game in Manchester, it is unlikely that Theresa May’s closing speech to the conference on Wednesday will be any different. As policy forums for their parties on the most pressing issue facing Britain in decades, therefore, these party conferences have been a fiasco.
True, there were a few flourishes worth noting in an afternoon of ministerial speeches that began with the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, stating as a fact – rather than his own hope – that Britain will leave the single market and the customs union at the end of March 2019, and ended with the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, doing a Winston Churchill impersonation by calling on the party to “let the lion roar”. True, connoisseurs of Tory ministerial speech codes were able to savour the defence secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, making three barbed insults about Mr Johnson in his characteristically sobersided speech, while those who monitor the solipsism of conference speeches will have noted that the international development secretary, Priti Patel, used the word “I” no fewer than 35 times in one of the most deeply self-regarding addresses to which any party has ever been subjected.
The Brexit secretary, David Davis, claimed to detect a new public mood for pressing on with Brexit in his own speech. People in Westminster seemed to be stuck in an endless debate while the rest of the world wanted to get a move on, he said. A little later in his speech he admitted that the details matter a lot. But there was no hint in his text that he has got any further with resolving any of the issues that are currently holding up progress in the UK-EU talks. There would soon be a deal on citizens’ rights, Mr Davis insisted. But he gave nothing away on how the UK hopes to solve the Irish border question in ways that either Ireland or the EU will accept. And there was nothing said about potentially the most explosive question for Tory delegates – UK payments to the EU as Brexit takes effect. Mr Davis made some friendly pro-European remarks along the lines of Mrs May’s Florence speech, but the larger reality is that he, like all ministers, had come to Manchester determined to say nothing of substance.
That was even true of Mr Johnson, traditionally the conference darling, but now seen by many of his colleagues as too much of an unguided missile to be indulged in the old ways. Mr Johnson produced a vintage performance, a rousing speech which one of the flattest Tory party conferences in years sorely needed. He made some good cracks about Jeremy Corbyn and he reminded his party that its task is to prove that capitalism can be made to work better. But Mr Johnson is a cowardly lion and there was not much genuinely serious politics about it. Nor could there be, because the government cannot afford to have the foreign secretary roam free on Brexit policy or too obviously promote a leadership challenge to Mrs May. But the result is shameful. Tuesday’s sessions showed that the governing party of this country, tasked with the massive endeavour of making a Brexit deal that does not damage the British economy or British jobs, cannot actually say anything specific about these questions at all. If that is not an admission of political bankruptcy, it is hard to know what such words mean.