Another conference season wasted
04 October 2018 15:30
Party conferences. Weeks of my life I will never get back.
This year they were even more painful than ever, because they were more pointless than usual – or at least when seen against the arc of a UK faced with pressing questions of historic moment.
Here we are just days from an EU council that will go some great way to determine the UK’s economic and geopolitical fate for decades. And the PM and her crack team of advisers saw the imperative as choosing the most apt exemplar of cheesy 70s disco-pop to prove to her party and the country that she is only human, after all.
If it had been my choice, I would have gone for ‘Le Freak’ – obviously the best disco anthem of all time, a subtler nod to the shapes she cut in Africa, and a bolder reinforcement of the weft of the warm-blanket speech that she tossed on the conference, namely that Tories are all ethnicities, genders and sexualities.
But don’t get me wrong. Politics is politics. And May’s priorities were right. She needed to give the performance of her political life, in order to buy a few precious weeks of relative stability in her party – well, if not stability, at least the perception she’s safe in her job till Christmas, so that she is taken at least half seriously by her EU interlocutors.
But what an indictment of everything that is rotten at Westminster. Decisions are about to be taken that will determine how much richer or poorer we’ll be for decades to come, whether we are more or less exposed to terrorists and crooks, whether peace will be sustained in Northern Ireland.
Yet all preparation and negotiation on the substance of our withdrawal from the EU and our future relationship with it had to be suspended while Boris Johnson harrumphed about chucking Chequers in a packed 1,000-seater auditorium in Birmingham’s International Conference Centre, and the PM urged him to b*ck business not f*ck it.
Labour, in Liverpool, was only marginally more edifying – with Jeremy Corbyn squeezed between trade union comrades who see the push for a People’s Vote as a sinister Blairite conspiracy and a Momentum movement whose younger members are appalled by Brexit. As for the parliamentary party, it is now so marginalised that vast numbers of MPs simply did not bother to turn up.
So here we are on the locomotive of history, and none the wiser about our eventual destination, after a fortnight when our main political parties actively chose to eschew the Brexit questions that matter.
As for the PM, she revealed that Tory members increasingly ask her for selfies, about five years after selfies became a thing at Labour conference. ‘Do you have a selfie face?’ she was asked. To my supreme joy, she didn’t have a clue what the question even meant. So, in case you were in doubt, she is a serious politician. Be grateful for small mercies.
Robert Peston’s politics show Peston is on ITV at 10.45 on Wednesdays. His book WTF? is out in paperback.