The Longer Read

History shows party conferences can make or break a leader

Conferences can refocus governments or mercilessly expose incompetence, writes Sean O’Grady. As this year’s season kicks off, leaders will have to be vigilant to escape the curse of colleagues on manoeuvres, mutinous delegates, and even – as Theresa May found out – having their voice become a dry croak

Saturday 30 September 2023 09:15 BST
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<p>Thatcher thrilled delegates in Brighton in 1980 with ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!’ </p>

Thatcher thrilled delegates in Brighton in 1980 with ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!’

It was Arthur Balfour, an aloof amateur philosopher who served as Conservative prime minister during the Edwardian era, who gave us the best quote about party conferences: “I would as soon be guided by my valet as by the Conservative Party Conference.”

Alas! The Tory grassroots of today count for rather more than they did 120 years ago, and one shudders to imagine what Balfour would have made of the party’s “activists” (dread word) having any say at all in the selection of its leader, let alone the demands of such insolent bodies as the Conservative Democratic Organisation and the National Conservatives for complete control of the leadership and policy.

Rishi Sunak can’t be looking forward to the event – to be held this year in Manchester – any more than his distant predecessor would have done. Yet party conferences can, albeit not often, help to rejuvenate a stale government.

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