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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 October 2018

Tories gather for conference amid gloom and unfolding chaos

Prime minister Theresa May is attempting to keep her party together while MPs such as Boris Johnson continue to snipe

Theresa May sits in the audience during the Conservative Party annual conference in Birmingham. Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
Theresa May sits in the audience during the Conservative Party annual conference in Birmingham. Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Theresa May’s ruling British Conservative party gathered in Birmingham on Sunday for their annual conference amid chaos, with senior figures openly vying for the leadership, widespread concern about the opposition Labour party, and a cyber-security scandal.

The long-simmering row between the prime minister and her former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, exploded onto the front page of The Sunday Times, which ran interviews with the pair under the headline: ‘Boris vs May – now it’s war’.

Mr Johnson, who resigned during the summer over the PM’s favoured Brexit deal, essentially set out his stall for a forthcoming party leadership election which many in the Conservatives believe will take place within the year after the country has exited the EU on March 29, 2019.

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He dismissed Mrs May’s Chequers proposals as “preposterous” and drew attention to the fact that the pair of them had fought on different sides of the EU referendum.

“Unlike the prime minister I campaigned for Brexit,” he said. “Unlike the prime minister I fought for this, I believe in it, I think it’s the right thing for our country and I think that what is happening now is, alas, not what people were promised in 2016.”

Mrs May fought back in her interview, warning against those “playing politics” in the party and saying that “my message to the Conservative Party is going to be that people voted to leave the EU. I believe it’s a matter of trust in politicians that we deliver on that vote for people.

“We’re the party that always puts country first and puts the national interest first. And that’s what I want us to be doing. The only proposal on the table at the moment that delivers that is the Chequers plan.”

Mr Johnson also presented himself as the only person who could fight against a resurgent Labour party, whose conference earlier in the week in Liverpool had seen popular policies announced and a confident address from its party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

“I think we need to make the case for markets. I don’t think we should caper insincerely on socialist territory. You can’t beat Corbyn by becoming Corbyn,” Mr Johnson said.

“We should be proud of being Conservatives, proud of what we stand for, believe in ourselves and believe in our ability to create the wealth to pay for fantastic mental healthcare services, a fantastic social care, a fantastic NHS.”

However, many of the MPs and delegates meeting in Birmingham are pressing the party high command to come up with alternatives to such vote-winning Labour policies as privatisation of national services such as water provision and the railways.

Rob Halfon, a thoughtful MP who has long pushed the party toward policies more popular with workers, said that there had been “serious stuff from Labour this week that may resonate with millions… Conservatives need a thoughtful response to this – predictable responses won’t cut it with public.”

And Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, warned that his party needed to listen more to their natural constituencies: “When we Conservatives veer between talking business down, ignoring voters’ concerns, and telling businesses to shut up – or worse – it is a sign we have lost our way.”

The latter was a clear reference to Mr Johnson, who used an expletive to wave away reaction from business leaders to a ‘hard Brexit’ that they had claimed would damage the country.

Claims that the party was losing its traditional competence on many issues will have struck true with Tories arriving in Birmingham this weekend, who could be forgiven for looking with envy at the slick Labour event which ended on Wednesday.

A technical error with the app that had been designed to allow delegates to find their way around conference meant that the personal details, such as phone numbers, of cabinet ministers and MPs such as Mr Johnson had been made accessible to thousands of people.

The flaw was soon resolved but the impression it added to of a party gathering against a backdrop of chaos an infighting will be hard to shake unless the Conservatives can pull off the unlikely feat of uniting behind Mrs May over the next four days.