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Manchester, united. A party, divided

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Commentary on the Conservative Party conference

“What a privilege to be here in Manchester city, but all united…”

As a metaphoric tumbleweed rolled across the stage Monday lunchtime, LGC could not help but think ‘fiscal’ Philip Hammond’s failed attempt at humour just about summed up what had been a largely lacklustre 24 hours at the Conservative party conference.

While there were a few nervous chuckles to the chancellor’s ‘joke’, behind it lay the true story of the conference in Manchester so far which cannot be found in any fringe session or plenary speech listed in the 250-page programme.

And it has seemed like most people know it as many seats in the auditorium for ministers’ speeches have remained empty.

Instead, most of the focus and attention has been on the potential successors to prime minister Theresa May: namely Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg who have been mobbed, quite literally in the latter’s case after protestors stormed a session he was attending today.

LGC got a small taste of this when being prevented from leaving the Midland Hotel so Mr Johnson could enter unimpeded.

“For goodness sake!” bellowed one disgruntled delegate. “He’s the most divisive figure in our party and we just pander to him.” That man then went on to gleefully film Mr Johnson’s entrance, like a moth to the light.

Forget announcements about raising tuition fee repayment thresholds, providing an extra £10bn for Help to Buy, or £300m investment in Northern Powerhouse rail services – the chat in the bar among delegates is all about who will succeed Theresa May in due course.

And it would appear there has been plenty of manoeuvring on that front, kick-started on Sunday by communities secretary Sajid Javid whose interview with the Observer caused a stir as he cut short his interview when asked if he was still backing Ms May.

Mr Javid, who LGC had been told was too busy to be interviewed during conference, then spent most of the morning touring TV and radio stations.

There was some anticipation then when it was his time to take to the stage. But any promise of a speech packed with new policy soon dissipated. Instead Mr Javid served up a mish-mash of previous speeches which various Tory council leaders called “repetitive” and “contained nothing new”. Seemingly caring about raising his own personal profile instead of trying to tackle the biggest issues within his brief, is it any wonder Mr Javid has seen the sector’s respect for him plummet?

Yet later that afternoon Conservative councillors were given a glimmer of hope when Ruth Davidson took to the stage and called on the party to “fulfil the plans” set out in the manifesto and “see our great metropolitan cities have a larger share in the government of our country”.

The Scottish Tory leader’s speech championing devolution went down well with the Tory masses and saw her popularity within the party surge to the point that one popular bookmaker slashed its odds on her becoming the next Conservative leader ranking her among the favourites for the role.

When it’s developments like that which are among the most exciting things to happen during conference, you know it’s not going well for the party hosting. But just as LGC’s Briefing on Friday predicted, the Conservatives’ internal struggles have prevented policy from dominating discussion.

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