A party despondent about an election failure, with people on manoeuvres to unseat the leader.
This year, that phrase could apply to both the major parties and their party conferences. The parties are united in their disunity, and neither has felt confident about their prospects in future elections.
One thing linking the two conferences was their difficulty in discussing Brexit. Labour decided to try and keep debate off the conference floor to avoid highlighting differences in opinion between Jeremy Corbyn and his party – leading to a last-minute debate on a NEC motion to staunch criticism. The Conservatives had no public rows about Brexit, but it has been ever-present at the conference. Hardly a fringe as gone by without the “B” word being mentioned and there seemed to be differences of opinion in how much to mention it. Some, like Michael Gove, made it front and centre of their speeches to conference in the main hall, while others tried to focus on other areas, while addressing the issues it creates.
Another common theme was an interest in future economies. Both conferences had well attended fringes on the so-called “fourth industrial revolution” and the energy transition – and the halving of the strike price for Offshore Wind – was discussed at length by both. While Brexit casts a cloud, the debate around green energy has notably changed away from a “trilemma” and costs challenges, towards clean energy being an inevitability that must be embraced. This is a remarkable and rapid change in just a few years.
However, something strange is happening too. The Conservatives, who should be delighted to have secured another five years in power, have had a conference that feels like one of a party that lost. The atmosphere has been flat compared to previous years and the main hall remarkably quiet for many of the party’s more senior ministers. Reading between the lines of some ministers’ speeches, one might also be forgiven for thinking that they are planning their own next steps, after the departure of the incumbent Prime Minister – trumpeting their individual successes and stretching collective responsibility to its limits.
Meanwhile Labour’s conference, which still exhibited the rifts present in the party, was actually the most united it has been in years, albeit from a low watermark. The hall was, for the most part, very full and the party’s leaders were greeted warmly, even those from outside Corbyn’s own cabal. There were hiccups of course – Corbyn’s non-attendance at the Labour Friends of Israel fringe and the anti-Semitism debate raging in the party – but generally speaking his personal performance at the conference was received well.
While there is no guarantee that this cannot change, the air seems to be in Labour’s sails while the Tory Conference felt deflated. While both parties are still disunited, the party that wins in 2022 might just be the one that best confronts its internal divisions today.