The best reason for visiting party conferences is to sniff the air. It’s fragments of conversation drifting through a bar, expressions on faces, tones of voice, that tell you the most. What I picked up in Manchester is first, that Theresa May is really fighting to stay; second, that Boris Johnson is overplaying his hand; but third, that this is over a profound issue of policy and not just ‘blond ambition’ .
I gave Mrs May a relatively tough interview and I think she was pretty cross. But my impressions were that the ‘burning injustices’ leader of the Downing Street steps is the real one; she’s frustrated she went off-message; and she now badly wants to get back to it.
The trouble is, Brexit overshadows everything. Talking to the most passionate Brexiteers, I was struck by just how much they fear betrayal and failure. They regarded the Florence speech as potentially disastrous because the proffered two-year transition allows time for the Tories to lose crucial votes in the Commons, and then an election — at which point the whole project might fall.
This is, of course, what many Remainers hope for. But it requires Labour to be highly disciplined on Europe. It also requires Tory MPs not just to rebel but to bring the government down on a confidence vote. Unlikely, no? Still, fear of failure is thrumming through the Brexit wing; and this is what the Foreign Secretary has picked up on. Even so, there was much less ‘good old Boris’ joviality and many more expletives on the subject than I’ve heard before.
Conferences also provide cracking material for the surrealist flâneur. Walking through St Peter’s Square in Manchester I came across pro-EU demonstrators. One was a Boris Johnson impersonator — a very good likeness, I have to say — riding a pink and purple inflatable unicorn, presumably in the pursuit of some metaphor or other. A dishevelled man arrived and said, with a sense of urgency: ‘I need a hug. Can I have my hug?’ Alternative Boris asked: ‘A hug with me or with the unicorn?’ The man looked disgusted. ‘With the unicorn, mate. Obviously.’ And he bent down and hugged it with what seemed real passion.
Conferences should be a time for great speeches — and many lousy ones too. My perfect conference reading was a new book by Philip Collins, Tony Blair’s ex-speechwriter, about rhetoric and democracy. It’s called When They Go Low, We Go High — a noble sentiment from Michelle Obama. Collins anatomises great speeches from Pericles and Cicero to the present day. Some may mock but he includes the former Labour leader’s ‘first Kinnock in a thousand generations’ speech at Llandudno during the 1987 general election campaign. I heard it as a young reporter. Those of us following Neil Kinnock’s campaign had the company of his Special Branch detectives, who were — perhaps predictably — ardent Thatcherites and deeply sceptical about Kinnock, one in particular.
As Kinnock spoke, their job was to stand in front of the platform keeping a close eye on the crowd. About halfway through the peroration, I glanced at this officer. His face was wet with tears. I have never again underestimated the power of great rhetoric to move.
Such rhetoric needs to be meant. It needs to be in clear English. It needs a strong message. Kinnock was one of the last of the great conference hall orators, who never translated properly to the age of the soundbite. These days, I fear the autocue has helped to destroy conference rhetoric. It raises the duff speaker to almost acceptable mediocrity, but it reduces really good orators —denuded of the tension and danger of a memorised or extemporised address — down towards the same level.
Ruth Davidson gave a speech about the gross imbalance between London and the rest of the country. Consciously or not, she was echoing Fletcher of Saltoun, a vivid Scottish parliamentarian of the early 1700s, who compared London’s unnatural engorgement with Britain’s wealth to the swollen ‘head of a rickety child’. He was a proto-nationalist. She is nothing of the sort: but she sounded genuinely cross.
Back from Manchester, I went straight to Bermondsey, to a gallery called Project Space, where I am showing some of my recent paintings, including a few with political themes. Hanging is a fiendish job, I have come to realise — what should go where and exactly how much white space should be left. It’s a joint show with a professional painter called Adrian Hemming. For his sake rather than mine, if anyone can get along to see it, we’d be delighted.