East Anglia's Tories tell party: 'Hold your nerve'
PUBLISHED: 11:10 28 September 2018 | UPDATED: 12:29 28 September 2018
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Conservative party conference is going to be blockbuster stuff – and the message from the East’s MPs is clear: “Hold your nerve.”
Never during peacetime has British politics endured such an unremitting period of high drama.
And this is down, of course, to Brexit.
As the Conservatives gather in Birmingham the nerves are jangling: from top brass to grassroots the trepidation is palpable.
Those loyal to the prime minister believe there is still time for Theresa May to pull off a Brexit miracle. Almost every one else is preparing for the worst.
In fact it is a miracle that Mrs May is still in Number 10. So don’t rule out another incredible turn of events that save her skin.
When the Tories left conference last year the question ringing around the Midland Hotel bar in Manchester was “how long has she got?” Very few people, even her allies, thought she would still be in a job in 12 months’ time.
She had just delivered the most disastrous political speech in recent history – falling backdrops, stage invasions and a panic-induced cough that left her choking on the biggest stage imaginable. There was some policy in that speech. No-one can remember what it was.
MP for North West Norfolk, Sir Henry Bellingham, warned colleagues that they need to be united at conference and focus on negotiating not among themselves but with Brussels.
“This is one of the most important conferences for a very long time,” he said. “Above all that is because of the Brexit debate. My very strong message to colleagues is ‘hold your nerve’.
“We can’t negotiate among ourselves, we are negotiating with Brussels and that is at a critical stage. I was not expecting a positive outcome from Salzburg because there is bound to be a lot of grand standing going on.
“But I am convinced there is going to be a deal at the end of it and it will probably be something quite similar to a Canada plus plus. What will probably happen is that Europe will reject Chequers but there will be agreement for a free trade treaty and that will enable us to go in to the transition.”
Chloe Smith, MP for Norwich North, added: “Conference is a good chance to see colleagues and activists from across the country.
“Sure, we’ll be talking about Brexit, but also the other really important things too – our record and our promise of keeping the economy strong, providing jobs and homes and more. We are proud to be the party chosen to be in government and we focus on delivering for people.”
But for the most part East Anglia’s MPs are keeping tight-lipped on the eve of conference. There is a real nervousness about what the next few days hold.
And the main reason is Brexit and any interventions former foreign secretary Boris Johnson might make.
He will make a speech to a fringe event on Tuesday building on his plan for Brexit – and will hope to overshadow the prime minister’s address the next day.
One Suffolk Tory said: “I think we are all a bit wary of Boris ... whether we back him or not. My hope is that he gets to have his say during this conference – not that anyone could stop him of course. But I don’t want him to completely dominate it.
“The prime minister is in a very difficult position and that means we need to hear what she has to say as well. I hope we can, as a party, manage to have both of those things happen without too much bother.”
This is a real fear for Number 10. They always knew Mr Johnson would not go quietly on to the backbenches but so far his weekly nationally newspaper column has proved an incendiary device in his battle to be come PM. And let’s make no bones about it, Mr Johnson is desperate to be the next leader of the Tories and of the country.
Politically he has travelled a long way from the internationalist London mayor to the hard Brexiteer. And the reason is simple: he can see an opportunity to get the Tory grassroots on side and those are the votes he will need in a contest for leadership.
Mrs May faces a deadlock over her Chequers plan. And many will be hoping she is willing to shift her view that it is the only viable option.
If there is some shift on her part, and it is deemed to be something Europe can work with, then her conference could still be a success.
She has shown incredible stoicism during her tenure as Tory leader and PM – whatever anyone’s personal views of her policies are. Can she do it again?