A tale of two conferences

By Simon Gentry

I had the dubious privilege of attending the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, in the heart of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ over the last few days.  Say what you like, but party conferences are fascinating: they provide a window into the soul of a party and have, over the years, been a very good indicator of who was most likely to win the next election.

But this year there were, in fact, two Conservative Party conferences.  One took place in the Conference centre and the Midland Hotel, surrounded by a high fence and lubricated by warm white wine.

The other conference took place in a media facsimile, a sort of nightmare version, dominated by scurrilous gossip and faux-outrage.  Self-important commentators, camera crews trailing, raced about trying to coax conference delegates into criticising the Prime Minister, Brexit and generally find things on which people disagreed.

This is disappointing in many ways. It both misleads the public about the actual state of the Conservative Party, but more importantly it gave very little air-time to a string of important policy announcements about the health service, law and order and a range of other things that are important to people’s lives – the lives lived outside the Westminster media bubble, which had floated up to the North West of England for a few days.

Inside the secure zone, however, delegates seemed completely unfazed and even unaware by the media hoo-ha.  It’s almost as though they are no longer paying attention to Sky News’ Beth Rigby and Lewis Goodall’s hyperventilating. 

Boris Johnson has a ‘complicated’ private life – shrug.  The FT is predicting Armageddon if the UK leaves the EU without a ‘deal’ – shrug.  Barnier … – shrug.  Veradkar … – shrug. To many of those attending the conference this is part of a Remainer plot to ‘get’ the Prime Minister, force the UK to ask the EU for an extension beyond 31 October and eventually get Brexit cancelled. An ad hominem attack by an establishment who have lost the argument.

Meanwhile, a remarkably young and largely male conference focussed on think-tank sessions, whilst their parents focused on the set-piece speeches.  And here again the media-conference split is obvious.  Other than Chancellor Sajid Javid and Home Secretary Priti Patel, there was almost no media coverage of any other ministerial speeches.  The secretaries of state for health, education, defence, pensions and benefits, all made speeches but none received much, if any, media attention.

Perhaps the public really is interested in Kay Burley trying to trap Boris’s father into saying something silly.  Maybe they really aren’t interested in Matt Hancock’s reshaping of primary care towards pharmacies rather than GPs.  Maybe the public really isn’t interested in the new Office of Veteran Affairs, which will be trying to improve the lives of service men and women once they’ve left the military.  Or maybe Downing Street is right, maybe social media is allowing the political class to simply ignore the media, reach over its head and speak directly to voters.

That’s not what I expected to be writing after this conference, but that was my overriding impression.

Simon Gentry is Managing Partner (Public Affairs) for Newgate Communications