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.