Torrential rain, ominous clouds and dark skies greeted the Pagefield team as we approached Manchester on Sunday afternoon. Pathetic fallacy? Perhaps a stretch, but it was certainly a stormy start for Boris at his first Conservative Party Conference as Prime Minister.
After yet another difficult week in which the Prime Minister was criticised for his choice of words in the House of Commons, punished by MPs who refused to grant a short recess for Tory Conference and dogged by new (and old) revelations about his personal conduct over the weekend, it looked like Johnson was in for a bumpy ride.
Not all doom and gloom
All this being said, predictions of a flat or low turnout at this year’s Conference didn’t come to fruition. After speculation as to whether conference would even go ahead – the atmosphere felt buoyant among the Tory faithful, particularly for those eager to “Get Brexit Done”, a slogan that was plastered all over the conference centre and reiterated at many a fringe event.
It is true to say however, that conference this year was low on MPs following last week’s vote against allowing for a recess. In what felt like a strange game of “Where’s Wally?”, as we were on the lookout for MPs who had made the trip up from Westminster – but it was slim pickings.
The same was true for the protestors. Apart from a couple of – admittedly fairly menacing – effigies and placards, in a break from recent years, I can’t say we noticed much trouble outside the secure zone. In fact, the only trouble seemed to happen in the conference centre, following reports that Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP had some sort of showdown with security staff.
Does Boris have a “woman problem?”
Ahead of his leader’s speech to conference on the Wednesday, the PM opted to do broadcast interviews the day before. Boris and his team would have known that interviews with the formidable Laura Kuenssberg and Beth Rigby, from the BBC and Sky News respectively, would be tough on a good day but throw allegations of personal misconduct into the mix and they were positively frightening. Both were relentless in their questioning about allegations made by a former colleague of his, but Boris stood firm in his denial.
Time will tell what the long term impact is among female voters, but as recent polling suggests – almost half of women (47 per cent) described the PM as “dislikeable”, up seven points since the end of August – he has some work to do in winning them over.
The big speech
It was a true “after dinner” Boris speech, full of gags, digs at the likes of John Bercow and Nigel Farage and with an air of bluster, the PM gave those who had been queuing since dawn what they wanted. Was it light on policy? Yes. Did it unify his party? Possibly. But it certainly felt like light relief after fraught appearances at the podium back in Westminster.
Overall, it is fair to say that Boris weathered this particular conference storm. Importantly, it seemed to signify a thaw in relations with the DUP, as Boris attended their conference reception on Tuesday night – a move which came to fruition when the DUP came out in support of the PM’s new Brexit plan.
The next challenge is the small matter of actually delivering Brexit, with all eyes now on the EU as they examine the PM’s proposals for the Irish backstop. Watch this space.