Boris Johnson's Tories are having a party while refusing to fix the cost of living crisis they helped create – Christine Jardine MP

I am never entirely sure what the general public expect from political party conference season.
Boris Johnson acknowledges the applause from his Cabinet after delivering his speech at the annual Conservative Party conference (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/pool/AFP via Getty Images)Boris Johnson acknowledges the applause from his Cabinet after delivering his speech at the annual Conservative Party conference (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson acknowledges the applause from his Cabinet after delivering his speech at the annual Conservative Party conference (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Certainly I remember as a teenager, that the all-day coverage on BBC offered an opportunity to understand a little more about how those with our future in their hands thought. What they planned.

Margaret Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair were all largely defined in the public mind by speeches on that party platform.

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“Education, education, education” was the statement of intent from a pre-Downing Street Tony Blair.

While Margaret Thatcher’s “you turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning” defined one of the most divided periods of modern British history.

But what of this past three weeks? What will the public make of us from them?

How much of Boris, Keir or Ed’s speeches will have seeped into the public consciousness and spring readily to mind 30 or 40 years later.

Certainly I suspect some of the Prime Minister’s comments about the current crisis will be re-visited over the next few months as he is challenged to explain just why he is not concerned.

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But overall I think the impression left will not be what he, or his party, had hoped for from their Manchester gathering.

Much of the vision they presented to the country seemed to reflect more the free abandon of a student flat in freshers week than the ambition and the stability we are all craving.

Yes, the Prime Minister was amusing as he pricked the occasionally pompous image of his Aberdonian Cabinet minister, Michael Gove, by reminding everyone of his recent clubbing exploits.

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But, by general consent, there was too much bombast and not enough policy. Little for the public to take away but the usual buffoonery and bluster to distract from the depth of the hole the country is in.

On the other hand, the lasting impression from Labour’s week in Brighton was of a party which may have ideas, but ones that not all of either their members or their leadership were signed up to.

And if there was an era-defining moment in Keir Starmer’s speech, it was difficult occasionally to focus over the heckling and to stick with until the eventual end.

Meanwhile we, the Liberal Democrats, opted for a more accessible virtual gathering with a live speech from the leader promising to smash more of that Tory Blue Wall in the south of England. The image and ambition were clearly expressed.

I appreciate to someone looking in, conferences may look like four days of sitting in a hall, strolling along beachfronts and over-enthusiastic clapping.

But it can, and should, be so much more than that. Both politically and personally.

Whether you are in Brighton or Bournemouth – two of my favourite conference locations – it always feels like coming home. Again both politically and personally.

You catch up with friends and colleagues you might not have seen for months or more, maybe even since the last conference.

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You meet groups and organisations who want your help in trying to make the world a little bit better.

From the stage come speeches and contributions from members which can make you laugh or make you cry, but should always remind you what you are in politics for.

The work that people put in is huge. Months of preparation to make sure that when you reach the podium to tell your story, every second of those perhaps only three minutes counts.

It can be a powerful, and empowering, feeling to be surrounded by people who believe what you believe. Whose vision for change matches your own.

At its purest level, of course, it is a four-day opportunity to present your party, your values and most importantly, your solutions, to the world that should not be squandered.

A chance to talk to the country. Prove that you have been listening.

Which brings me back to the Prime Minister, who seemed only to be interested in talking to himself, or at least those like him.

Yes, self-praise, congratulations for the things that your government have achieved, is an integral part of what you are there for.

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But at a time when tomorrow is a word people are coming to fear, as they look at the Universal Credit which they won’t get, the furlough support that their business no longer has, the gaps in employment which make operating difficult, and the increasing mountain of debt we all face, something more was needed.

Something which told us not just how the government will deal with the fuel crisis but that indicated that they at least understand, even if they do not share, our concern.

Pointing to sunny uplands is all very well, but we need to know how you plan to get there. To talk of levelling up, of equal opportunity, means nothing against a backdrop of cuts which will do exactly the opposite.

Then there’s karaoke. Believe me nobody enjoys the social side of conference more than I do. I was, after all, crowned Lib Dem Disco Queen of 2018 Brighton Conference.

But there are times when you need to read the room. And the country. That’s if you care what they think.

Let off steam by all means but remember that those watching may not all be having the time of their lives and that you have a responsibility to not just respect that, but to do something about it.

But it was all as out of touch with the reality as the Prime Minister’s speech and helped paint a picture of a government unaware and untouched by the cost of living crisis they have helped create, and now refuse to fix.

Perhaps that will be the defining image of this conference season.

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Christine Jardine is Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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