Conference season has become less a festival of ideological posturing and policy ideas, more three weeks’ worth of speculation as to which big names have eyes on their party’s top job. Most manoeuvres are subtle and contemplated, whilst the others are made by Boris Johnson.
The Lib Dems kicked the whole thing off in Brighton, their conference proving to be largely as drab and inconsequential as most had anticipated. Vince Cable, once the lifeblood of his party, spoke with all the enthusiasm of a resigned man. Quite literally, in fact – Vince had stated in early September that he would step down ‘once Brexit was resolved’, a date I’m sceptical he’ll still be around to see. His Leader’s Speech, then, was always going to prove tricky, given the general bleakness surrounding its delivery. But Cable had the answer - an ‘erotic spasm’ of continental (namely European) proportions - or so the plan went. Shuffling onto stage, the Lib Dem leader stepped clumsily into the shoes of a body double 55 years his junior, sex jokes rolling off the tongue like a schoolboy who’s just finished the Inbetweeners boxset. Abruptly and embarrassingly, with a slip of the dentures, ‘erotic spasm’ became ‘exotic spresm’. Cable knew what his party wanted, (or at least thought he did), but seemed pitifully acceptant that he wasn’t the man to provide it. Conference duly turned to Gina Miller, a woman who seems to be everywhere at any one time. It says it all about the state of the Lib Dems that Ms Miller’s public dissociation with the party was met with cheers from members. Vince looked on with a longing envy – if only it were that easy to scarper at a moment’s notice.
Meanwhile, Labour’s big moment came courtesy of Keir Starmer, disguising his skidding U-turn as a smooth change of lanes. The Shadow Brexit Secretary labelled a ‘public vote’ (on what exactly remains to be seen) as one of a number of Brexit options. In fact, it seemed that virtually every option was still on the table, bar the ‘no deal’ scenario which, I dare say, most of the 52% voted for. As catastrophic as I believe Brexit will prove to be, to have a second referendum in which the original winner isn’t even on the ballot seems deeply unjust. Sensing audience jubilation, Starmer went further still, proclaiming “nobody is ruling out remain as an option”, all the while forgetting having spent the last year and a half ruling out remain as an option. Cameras panned to a disgruntled Dennis Skinner; as perhaps 80% of the conference hall rose to applaud this shift in policy, the rest rooted to their seats, Labour’s Brexit divide had never been as starkly visible.
As eyes duly turned to the Conservatives, a thick black cloud could be observed descending over conference season, specifically the city of Birmingham. Anything to brighten the place up, eh. Yet out of the haze of botched Brexit negotiations and leadership speculation, to everyone’s surprise, danced* (*verb used loosely) our Prime Minister, our very own Dancing Machine. A daring move indeed, although by now Theresa’s speech writers, advisors and mechanics had realised that self-deprecation was probably the best way to limit jibes down the line. Take the piss of yourself, and leave the satirists out of material. Smart. The speech proved a roaring success, given the hypocrisy of the Prime Minister’s soundbite-laden script was entirely overshadowed by her Peter Crouch impression. May often lacks content, and while her spiel was certainly dragged out, this speech hinted at a new direction for the Conservative Party. Her pledge to fix faulty free markets was tacit admission of a flawed and failed ideology; history will damn May as the betrayer of conservatism. To channel Tony Benn, Theresa May constitutes ‘the ultimate weathercock’.
That there is genuine policy to be discussed post conference season is refreshing. For the left at least, optimism can be sourced from May’s words, if not Starmer’s. The centre ground in politics is shifting, and it is at the discretion of the left as to where to pin the flag; the window of ideas perceived as rational and practical is on the move. Perhaps it’s time to take a chance.