“A party conference can be many things,” Francis Urquhart mused in the TV classic House of Cards, “a show of confidence, an agonizing reappraisal, or, as in this case, a series of auditions by pretenders to the throne, while the lost leader withers before our very eyes”.
Theresa May had an easy conference debut as party leader as she basked in adulation from her fellow Conservatives, but then she staked her authority on crushing Jeremy Corbyn in a snap election.
The initial confidence among Tories in their leader swiftly turned sour when the results came in. They have been swift to reappraise Mrs May, but have reached an agonising conclusion: she must go, but cannot step down yet. Members will use their latest gathering to vent their frustrations about her leadership in the bars of Manchester, but what can they do?
The party can ill afford to waste time holding a leadership election when it has to drive forward Britain’s effort to negotiate its exit from the European Union. Even if it did, polls show that none of the obvious challengers would improve the Tory party’s popularity. Consequently, they are stuck with Mrs May.
Cabinet ministers insist they are behind the Prime Minister, but few will be able to resist using their turn on stage to show the conference faithful what they could be like in charge. The boldest auditions won’t happen in the hall though, as Tories will be searching for inspiration at fringe events.
These lower-key gatherings in the bars and conference spaces around Manchester will be where the party starts to examine why it failed to win big in June, how it can successfully manage Brexit, and how it will renew itself afterwards. The party thought Mrs May would annihilate Jeremy Corbyn, but he lives to fight another day, so the Tories will be looking out for someone who can finish the job.
The party does not need to rush in its search for Mrs May’s successor, as it is determined to give her the chance to get Brexit right. It has a cruder reason to support her too: stopping Jeremy Corbyn getting into power. He came too close to the gates of Downing Street for comfort earlier this year, and the Tories know if they fall apart that the resulting election could see him waltz right in. If backing Mrs May will keep him away, so be it.
The Conservatives are not bereft of ambition, as their MPs will show at this conference. The question is, as activists consider the future, will they be able to inspire their audience with positive visions for the future? Those who can will have the best claim to the throne.
Asa Bennett, commissioning Brexit Editor, The Daily Telegraph