This October, the Conservative party’s conference in Birmingham has been dominated by the long shadow cast by the Brexit talks. Theresa May’s ministers have spent the week waging rhetorical war on Brussels, lining up to insist that the EU must be the first to blink.
Tory activists tend to be a far more deferential and reverential bunch than their Labour opponents. Consequently, their annual jamboree for party activists and officials is usually more of a celebration rather than a forum to make and discuss policy.
As the Article 50 talks reach their most delicate ‘make or break’ stage that, perhaps, is little surprise, particularly since Tory party activists are far more eurosceptic than ordinary Britons. Having spent another year watching a rudderless government make little progress with Brexit or in implementing domestic programme, they badly needed something to cheer.
Speaking on Monday (1 October), Chancellor Philip Hammond told delegates that the UK economy would be boosted by “a deal dividend”.
He also insisted that the Chequers proposal put forward by the government, which would effectively keep the UK in a single market on goods, was the only viable option on the table.
“Mr Tusk says it won’t work,” he said. “But that’s what people said about the lightbulb in 1878.”
Later, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab accused EU leaders of throwing “jibes” and a “starkly one-sided approach to negotiation…where the EU’s theological approach allows no room for serious compromise” at last month’s EU summit in Salzburg, where leaders unanimously rejected Theresa May’s plan.
“Our willingness to compromise is not without limits,” warned Raab.
But Raab, who campaigned for a Leave vote, issued his own plea for eurosceptics to back the government’s negotiating strategy.
“Disentangling our laws, our institutions and our economy from Brussels after more than forty years of EU membership was never going to be straightforward or risk free,” he said.
Even the so-called moderate Tories have not wasted the chance to talk tough. On Sunday, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, meanwhile, who is believed to have plans to pitch himself as a potential candidate of the Tory moderates, appeared to compare the EU to the Gulags of the Soviet Union.
But the belligerent rhetoric from the podium, cannot disguise the fact that the Tories are deeply divided. Both May and Hammond have again ruled out trying to broker a free trade pact modelled on the EU-Canada trade deal, the compromise demanded by Raab’s predecessor David Davis and other eurosceptics.
While the keynote speeches by ministers were delivered to a sparsely attended auditorium, fringe meetings organised by pro-Remain MPs Justine Greening and Anna Soubry, who support a ‘People’s Vote’ referendum on the final outcome of the Article 50 negotiations, and the ‘hard Brexit’ wing who oppose the Chequers proposal, were both packed out.
On Tuesday, however, the prince across the water, Boris Johnson, offered a break from grim reality.
Freed from any vague sense of loyalty to the Prime Minister, whose job he so desperately wants, having resigned as foreign secretary in July, the demand that the government “chuck Chequers’ lay at the heart of Johnson’s alternative leader’s speech.
One of the few speeches that has been well-attended – 1,500 people queued up to see the blonde-haired former foreign minister – and also one of the few to be genuinely optimistic, Johnson promised ”a glorious future…brave, right and remarkable and in accordance with the wishes of the British people”.
The Chequers deal would leave the UK “locked in the tractor beam of Brussels” and would be “politically humiliating for a £2 trillion economy”, Johnson told delegates.
Instead, the UK should flick a v-sign to Brussels, “scrap the Commission’s constitutionally abominable Northern Ireland backstop […] use the otherwise redundant and miserable ‘implementation period’ to the end of 2020 to negotiate the Super Canada FTA, to invest in all the customs procedures that may be needed to ensure continued frictionless trade, and to prepare much more vigorously for a WTO deal.”
He added that nobody should believe the EU’s insistence that the Chequers proposal is unworkable. EU negotiators, insisted Johnson, would sign up to a version of Chequers. By accepting Chequers “the UK will be effectively paraded in manacles down the Rue de la Loi like Caractacus”.
“If we bottle Brexit, the people of this country will find it hard to forgive,” Johnson concluded.
That kind of tub-thumping will have sent Brexiteering delegates away light-headed. Whether the rest of the country will be convinced is another matter.
One of the most striking things for non-believers to observe since June 2016 has been the reality gap between the UK and EU political bubbles. Comparing the rhetoric of MEPs in Strasbourg with Tory ministers in Birmingham this week one can only conclude that it is more than just the Channel Tunnel that separates them.