The last week in September is a time in the United Kingdom where the political parties at Westminster depart the palace complex for seaside resorts up and down Britain or head up north to Manchester or Birmingham for their annual party conferences.
It is time to mix and mingle with the party rank and file — the thousands of mostly ordinary Britons who pay their party fees and are willing to financially support the government or opposition.
For Members of Parliament, it is a time where they will gauge the elements that will determine what happens come general election time. And it is an opportunity for disparate voices to be at least seen if not fully heard.
For party officials, it is a time when new outlooks are floated, new policies forged, new rules introduced that will go a significant way in determining how the party and its members will be viewed at the doorsteps up and down Britain during the next campaign and for often long after than too.
For party leaders, the stakes are highest. They must face their party faithful, answer for what they have done, make amends for the future and, critically — give an all-important leader’s speech to rally the troops and potential new voters to their cause.
And so what of the Conservatives.
For blue-blooded Tories, Boris Johnson can mostly do no wrong. He has led the nation through an unparalleled public health, social, economic and political crisis unprecedented in peace time in the modern era.
Yes, there have been lows: his personal illness; the performance of senior ministers in key roles such as education and health; the failure to provide enough personal protective equipment during the initial months of the pandemic; the high rate of deaths in care homes; a failure to take lockdown measures swiftly enough; confusion over regional lockdowns and travel rules, a confusion over messaging and the whole Dominic Cummings fiasco where his most senior adviser flouted travel rules and kept his job at 10 Downing Street — the list is pretty long.
But the reality is that Johnson remains extremely popular with grass roots Tories.
He has recently said he wants to be in power for longer than the decades managed by Conservative icon Margaret Thatcher. Certainly, his supporters would wish that to be true too. He holds a solid majority of seats at Westminster — likely large enough to sustain a swing of support away from his party at the next general election. For Johnson to lose next time out would require a very significant shift away to Labour — or the Liberal Democrats.
On paper, Johnson sits comfortably atop the party. But if the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that things can change very quickly, and normal isn’t as immutable as we once thought it was.
Earlier this month Johnson shuffled his cabinet, getting rid of three senior ministers who failed to live up to expectations. The action of a strong leader? Well, not so much, in that in demoting Dominac Raab, the Foreign Secretary for his failure over Afghanistan to Justice, Johnson also promoted him to Deputy Leader. A mixed message. For many socially conscious Tories, Priti Patel sits uncomfortably in the Home Office, but she remained. And at the highest level of the party, there are clear differences between Johnson and the chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak.
Sunak is extremely popular with Tories, and the decision by Johnson to hike National Insurance premiums — a no-tax increase policy had been instituted by Conservative party conferences — does not sit well.
In the blue Tory wall that surrounds London through the leafy suburbs and rolling hills, there is concern over local planning laws that allow for new homes to be built in pristine conservative areas.
From London, extending up to Birmingham, the new HS2 train project is cutting through constituencies, overriding the concerns of local environmentalists. It is seen as Johnson’s vanity project, and it is unpopular — unless you’re a commuter living in Birmingham who will be able to get to London in an hour — with not quite so green credentials that Johnson and HS2 supporters would like.
And then there’s that whole levelling up thing, a promise to ensure areas in the north of England — traditional Labour voting areas — receive adequate funding for services and projects. Well, according to the latest figures the treasure, most of the funds allocated to projects have gone to Tory constituencies, leaving critics pointing out that it’s just a highly political project anyway.
For all of the complacency then with Conservative rank-and-file members, there are speed bumps.
It is the time too where Labour holds its annual conference. And Sir Kier Starmer, the leader who replaced Jeremy Corbyn, beloved by the left, faces a far more difficult ride.
Labour is a house divided, torn between those who seek to make it electable and appealing to soft conservative voters who were turned off by the hard-left policies of Corbyn, and those on the left who believe that only real social change and policies of equality can make Labour appealing.
It is a party struggling with its own identity led by a leader wrestling with his. On the face of it, Labour’s challenge is Labour itself.
It will be a party conference of rancour and rifts. It has been so in recent times and will likely be again.
If Labour has any hope of winning the next general election or at least being able to have enough seats to form a coalition with, say, the Scottish Nationalists, it will be hoping that the Conservative government vote to withdraw a £20-per-week pandemic supplement to the most needy. That will be a move that will be loved by most Conservative party supporters, but it will be one that will cast a million worst-off Brits into abject poverty. If that can’t galvanise Labour, wishy-washy Labourites who backed Johnson last time out, and invigorate Sir Kier, nothing can.