The nicest thing you can say about this year’s conference of Britain’s Conservative party in Manchester is that at least it’s not Birmingham’s turn. Manchester may draw more lefty protesters — the 2015 conference in Britain’s second city made me feel like Aragon at Helm’s Deep, surrounded by unwashed orcs — but at least it retains some of its brickwork grandeur. Birmingham, by contrast, was heavily bombed during the war — I mean modernism’s war on humanity, not the Second World War — and no city has made the deadly results of fascination with reinforced concrete more brutally obvious.
That comparison aside, though, the Manchester conference was a gloomy affair. It’s been years since a Conservative Party Conference was anything more than a stage-managed fundraiser — the Conservatives no more conference at their conferences than the United Nations debates during its debates — but this year, even the stage was threadbare. Corporate booths were notably lacking. Personally, I love the Conservative Party Archive at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, but when the Archive gets a double-sized booth at the heart of the exhibition floor, it’s obvious that the Party is having trouble selling space.
The liveliest part of the conference was its fringe — the unofficial events and rallies in and out of the conference zone. Indeed, this year’s fringe was the best in years, with more panels, better attendance, and higher profile speakers. That’s not unmitigated good news, though. The fringe was perky precisely because the Party is not, and Britain’s think tanks and activists had more to say because the Party itself appears intellectually and politically impoverished.
To me, the most disheartening moment may have when Mark Littlewood, the excellent director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, asked Priti Patel, the international development minister and a rising Tory star, if disappointed believers in a smaller state could expect to see some deregulation and tax cuts in the next Conservative election manifesto (which is likely to come rather sooner than the nominal date of 2022). Of course, that’s no more in Patel’s power than it is to make Venezuela prosperous. But her response — “Well, anything is possible” — sums up a party that, apart from Brexit, appears to be uninterested in doing anything other than surviving. When your stars won’t even say the right thing, it takes a real leap of faith to believe they’ll actually do it.
Part of the problem, of course, was the miserable Conservative performance in the June 2017 general election. I’ve already had my say in these pages about that, and nothing I heard at Manchester changed my mind about the short-term causes of the debacle. (If you’re an election aficionado, the three-part ConservativeHome series on the rusty Tory machine that starts here is worth your time.) Basically, the Tories entered the campaign assuming they’d win, but without the apparatus, the activists, the policies, the manifesto, or the plan to ensure they did. As a result, they’re now trapped with a Prime Minister they neither like nor respect, but who, by virtue of being barely tolerable to everyone, appears to be irreplaceable. Winning cures many ills, and having all but lost, the Tories feel sick to their stomachs.
But Tory difficulties run rather deeper than that. First, there’s Brexit. An overwhelming majority of Conference attendees back it, and, frankly — at least as a matter of process — it’s going a lot better than you think it is, as Christopher Howarth pointed out in a stimulating roundup of the negotiations for ConservativeHome. Given that it took Britain 12 years to get into the European Union, the fact that it takes a few years to exit shouldn’t be a shock. And the complexity of the UK-EU negotiations offers the best possible proof that the EU really is deeply embedded into British governance: if the EU’s role was as limited as Europhiles like to claim, getting out of it should have been a doodle.
The problem is that many of the advantages of Brexit depended on Britain deciding to do things differently, to make something in policy, political, and legal terms of its freedom from the EU. Instead, the government is going out of its way to do no such thing. All existing EU rules are simply being transposed into British law. Though described as a Great Repeal akin to those of the Victorian era, it’s actually a Great Incorporation. In theory, MPs and civil servants will then examine the entire corpus, discarding and rewriting as they go. You can color me skeptical that this will ever happen. Yes, Britain will get its external trade freedom back, and the prospects for new free trade agreements, including with the U.S., are cheering. But the constraints that matter in Britain are overwhelmingly those the EU has placed on its imports and on the domestic British economy, and Britain shows no desire to do the one thing that really scares the EU: become a liberal free-market competitor by junking those restraints.
Now, in the end, events are what tell, and once it gets its parliamentary and legal sovereignty back from the EU, I continue to believe that its own interests will force Britain to do things differently from the EU. Even the EU hasn’t been able to create a genuine economic, fiscal, cultural, or political convergence across Europe, and when the EU is deprived of its legal supremacy, Britain is only going to drift further away from it. But a policy of drift is a hard one to get excited about. How much better would it be if the Tory Party and the British government — excepting Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, and David Davis — treated Brexit not as a problem to be overcome, but an opportunity to be seized? A British government that refuses to lead will never be great, and it’s unlikely to be popular either.
This piece originally appeared in The Weekly Standard