The Guardian view on the Tory conference: Johnson is not the answer | Editorial

The Conservatives are trying to bore their way through a dangerous week. They have little that is new or interesting to say

At the halfway point in this year’s Conservative conference, the widespread predictions of a political bloodbath have been wide of the mark. The Conservatives are naturally talking a lot about Brexit. There is an unlimited supply of leadership speculation in the bars. Yet the Tories aren’t known for their discipline for nothing. The conference hall, which is often nowhere near full this year, has in fact been respectful and supine, as a succession of ministers have made speeches of unimpeachable dullness that few media outlets bother to report.

This is, of course, just what Theresa May and party chairman Brandon Lewis seek. Mrs May’s slippery grip on British politics requires an uneventful conference. In that respect, her humiliation at Salzburg two weeks ago may have helped her at Birmingham by drawing the party’s fire away from the internal row over the Chequers plan towards the supposedly unreasonable behaviour of the EU27. Attacking the EU, not Chequers, is now the preferred mode for leadership hopefuls. In an otherwise emollient speech on Sunday, for instance, the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, made the disgraceful claim that the EU was a prison, in the manner of the Soviet Union. Mr Hunt should not be allowed to get away with that sort of insult to democratic Europe.

Cheeringly, Monday’s most vibrant meeting in Birmingham was the one that Mr Lewis, in a shameful decision, had banned from the official conference fringe. The rally by Conservatives who favour a second referendum on Brexit took place a few streets away. This unofficial fringe was packed to the rafters. It heard the former education secretary Justine Greening warn that the Tory party is losing contact with the electorate “because all we talk about is Brexit” and the former justice minister Phillip Lee complain that the party now seemed to be “on the side of angry men and against women and young people”. The John Major-era cabinet minister Stephen Dorrell celebrated the high attendance as proof that it was not just Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but now also many Tories, who have a stake in the campaign for a “people’s vote”.

Mrs May’s control over the conference will be more directly threatened on Tuesday when the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson speaks in what is officially only a fringe meeting. Mr Johnson will attack Chequers and stake his claim for the succession. He will get enormous coverage – as much because he is a media darling as because he is a threat to Mrs May. Beware of taking Mr Johnson as seriously as he takes himself. His ambition, his private life and his slap-happy journalistic style increasingly count against him. The Tory party does not love him as it did. Ministers attack him more openly, as Philip Hammond did on Monday. There have been ambitious politicians who have craved the highest jobs in politics before – but none on so weak a record.

Even if Mrs May escapes from Birmingham relatively unscathed, the threats to the Tory party are real. The conference slogan – Opportunity – rings hollow. The continuance of austerity, confirmed by Mr Hammond, saps credibility. Intelligent Tories bemoan the lack of vision. Liberals and pragmatists fear that Mrs May’s negotiating ineptness means that “Tory Brexit” will remain an albatross around the neck of the next generation. The Tories gossip about leadership, but there is little sign of the substantive new thinking that the party clearly needs. One thing is certain. It won’t now come from Mrs May. And it won’t come from Mr Johnson either.

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Editorial

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