Isabel Hardman

Why the fringes are taking centre stage at Tory conference

Why the fringes are taking centre stage at Tory conference
Jacob Rees-Mogg on the Tory fringes (Getty images)
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Tory conference is so stage-managed these days that the main hall has long felt like a bit of a sideshow compared to the lively debate on the fringes and the packed bars. That’s been true so far this week, and not just because the ‘main hall’ is just a small area of the convention centre, so small you can hear the chatter of delegates buying clothes and jam at neighbouring stalls while ministers are trying to speak.

This hasn’t gone down all that well with some ministers, who’ve been able to hear raucous applause from fringe meetings as they’ve been giving their own speeches to a less-than-packed hall.

Not everyone has even got a speech: some Secretaries of State have been relegated to something called a ‘panel discussion’, which looks more like a scripted dialogue than the sort of debate you might expect on the fringe. Yesterday, for instance, the ‘discussion’ about Work and Pensions managed to gloss over the ongoing debate about the £20-a-week uplift to Universal Credit and instead focused on jobs. An important part of the brief for Therese Coffey, sure, but not particularly representative of what Tory MPs – let alone the wider political world – are talking about.

Whether in a ‘panel discussion’ or giving a traditional speech, ministers so far haven’t really had much to say.

The way ministers have dealt with supply chain crises is striking too. They have largely only given a nod to the problems that are occupying the minds of many voters. The reasoning behind this, as one figure well-versed in the party’s approach to business explains, is that the Tories have to show after the pandemic that the government isn’t going to step in to solve every problem that businesses have any more.

It’s gone a little bit further than that, with comments to the Telegraph today about firms being ‘drunk’ on cheap labour. But the quietness is, on this front at least, deliberate.

The volume is rising today, with Dominic Raab making a number of announcements about criminal justice policy, and more due from Priti Patel and Sajid Javid later.

A focus on law and order also makes sense given its political salience, but yesterday included Michael Gove’s speech on levelling up, which is apparently a government priority. Gove didn’t announce anything. Perhaps he felt that the task of defining levelling up was sufficiently significant, given it has been two years since it became a slogan without any meaning. Or perhaps Boris Johnson is keeping all the levelling up announcements for his own speech in his own special big hall tomorrow. But it has meant that the buzz is elsewhere in the conference, including on those stalls selling clothes.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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