‘Unreconciled' Remainers & Tory troubles – Bernard Jenkin's conference diary
Although Treasury plots, divisions and apparent indecision cast a cloud over a sombre conference, Bernard Jenkin is full of admiration for the Prime Minister's resilience
Of course, this has been a sombre conference, but the media have completely overdone the downbeat atmosphere. They always do.
Conservatives are troubled by the state of the party’s campaigning machinery, the inexorable decline of our membership (which for some reason no recent leader has ever made a strategic priority to reverse) and our lack of appeal to younger voters. But most are determined we tackle these things.
The new CEO at CCHQ is going down well. Mick Davis is a successful business manager with a track record of leading large and complex organisations. Leadership and engagement of workforce, membership and other stakeholders (key themes of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which I chair) are at last being taken much more seriously.
The divisions and apparent indecision over Brexit have cast an anxious cloud over the week. It appears there is a concerted effort by some in the party (a small minority) who seem determined to make the proposed implementation period into a protracted and expensive delay of Brexit, and even to misuse the Florence speech as a platform for a kind of “Brexit in name only”, as I have heard it said.
I bump into the highly respected Charles Grant, director of Centre for European Reform, who says he has been talking to Treasury officials. He is prepared to bet that the UK will stay “in the customs union and the single market” and remain subject to full compliance with EU law for more than two years after we leave the EU. Moreover, the UK will promise to maintain regulatory alignment with the EU in order to retain “access” to the single market at the end of the period, which effectively kills any prospect of a bold global trade policy. This is not what the cabinet has agreed. Nor what the majority of voters or the vast majority of Conservatives want.
If this Treasury-inspired campaign were to succeed and the UK remained shackled to the EU, paying billions for the privilege, how on earth would Conservative MPs explain this to voters in Leave-voting constituencies (ie most of them)? Expect the discredited Treasury economists to justify all this with another round of disastrous forecasts based on a whole lot of false assumptions. It is not Leave MPs who threaten party splits these days, it is unreconciled Remain interests.
A high point of my conference was the Centre for Social Justice fringe, the Childhood Obesity Crisis: Off the Scales. My wife (we met at the Brighton conference in 1984) chaired a presentation and panel discussion on their forthcoming report reflecting input from a broad range of academics, campaigners and representatives of the food industry, on how to tackle the crisis. The report’s coordinator, Dolly Theis (this year’s candidate for Vauxhall) was supported by Zac Goldsmith, Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell, and chef and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt also dropped in to endorse the proceedings – a clear signal to the food industry.
It is stunning to hear how child obesity afflicts the poor by far the most, and how much it costs their health in later life, and the NHS. It was fascinating to hear how the Mayor of Amsterdam has succeeded in making a real impact. This was inspirational.
Message? A tax on fizzy drinks barely scratches the challenge. But a comprehensive approach and concerted leadership can make a real difference.
Just listening to the Prime Minister’s speech, and to the response of the party membership in the audience. It is clear that the Conservative Party likes and admires Theresa May, and wants her to stay on as leader and PM. She had a heavy cold during the conference, and has shown the most remarkable resilience and determination.