Conference season has proven that both the Tories and Labour are living in a bubble

In the week that the universal credit uplift ended, energy prices spiked, and piglets got carted off to be slaughtered because of labour shortages, there was a seductive jollity to conference – and everyone felt it

Cathy Newman
Thursday 07 October 2021 12:20
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<p>‘In the bubble, they queued for Boris Johnson. Outside, they queued for petrol’ </p>

‘In the bubble, they queued for Boris Johnson. Outside, they queued for petrol’

Michael Gove and Tom Tugendhat jiving joyously; Thérèse Coffey – barefoot – belting out the Dirty Dancing crowd-pleaser: to be at the Conservative conference in Manchester was to be transported to an alternate reality.

I’m not sitting in moral judgement here. I was among the journalists in the sweaty crowd rediscovering the forgotten maskless joy of a spot of karaoke. Unfortunately there is photo and video evidence that this did indeed happen. Good job too, because otherwise I’d struggle to believe what I witnessed there.

In the bubble, they queued for Boris Johnson. Outside, they queued for petrol. From Nadhim to Nadine, from Priti to Rishi, they all chuckled at his after-dinner speech (served up before lunch). In the week that the universal credit uplift ended, energy prices spiked, and piglets got carted off to be slaughtered because of labour shortages, there was a seductive jollity to conference – and everyone felt it.

Gone (mostly) were the blue-rinse brigade of old. In their place were the young, suited and booted; shiny happy people, seemingly doing well despite the effin (energy, food, fuel) crisis.

Labour, though, was no more reflective of reality the week before in Brighton. Masks there were, and the country’s troubles were name-checked periodically. But although Sir Keir Starmer’s speech – as I wrote last week – was a valiant attempt at sounding prime ministerial (something Johnson went out of his way to avoid yesterday), in the days prior to it, his party seemed to inhabit a parallel universe; discussing arcana the outside world neither knows nor cares about.

Of course, ’twas ever thus. Covering the party conferences (as I have done now for 22 years, scarily enough), I’m always intrigued by how unreal they are. Former Conservative leader William Hague valiantly reminded us of this in his newspaper column this week. Nothing sums up the weirdness of political gatherings better than the spectre of the boy William – aged 16, decked in tweed with a massive badge pinned to his lapel – wowing the Tories with his rant on the perils of socialism in 1977.

People who might otherwise appear quite normal do and say the strangest of things when they’re among their political clan, far from home. Former foreign secretary David Miliband, usually the most media-savvy of politicians, inexplicably allowed himself to be photographed brandishing a banana at Labour’s party conference in 2008. Ditto Neil Kinnock forgetting that a suit and slippery smart shoes aren’t the smartest idea for a seaside walk on a steeply shelving Brighton beach in 1983.

Whether it’s because they’re under pressure (think former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith’s rambling interview in 2003 about putting rebel MPs “in a telephone box”) or under the illusion they’re among friends (Coffey and Gove fall into this category), MPs seem to lose contact with reality when they gather with the party faithful.

That’s fine if, after tickling the tummies of the activists, normal business resumes.

What’s alarmed some habitual Tory backers – businesses, think tanks and so on – is the prospect that Johnson’s hugely entertaining speech might be all there is.

“Bombastic but vacuous and economically illiterate,” fumed the free market Adam Smith Institute. Ryan Shorthouse, chief executive of the Conservative think tank Bright Blue, meanwhile warned: “The public will soon tire of Boris’s banter if the government does not get a grip of mounting crises: price rises, tax rises, fuel shortages, labour shortages. There was nothing new in this speech, no inspiring new vision or policy.”

Turning the UK into the high-wage, high-skilled utopia Johnson daydreams about, solving the productivity puzzle by harnessing innovation and technology, will all take time, if indeed it’s possible at all. In the meantime the crises – and the bevy of black swan events – take flight.

That said, Johnson has always been a lucky politician. And maybe he’ll get lucky again. If he does, he could claim to have radically reinvented Conservatism, and had a go at reshaping Britain. In that (so far imaginary) universe, we’ll all be living in the bubble.

Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News, weekdays, at 7pm

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