Anthony Ridge-Newman and Antony Mullen

Chaos, fractures and a party wide ‘nervous breakdown’ seemed to dominate the Tory narrative in the run-up to Conservative Party Conference 2017 (CPC2017). The central characters, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, and Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, were depicted as being at odds over the negotiations for Britain’s Exit from the European Union (Brexit). In the media, Brexit was portrayed as the Foreign Secretary’s weapon of choice to wound the Prime Minister. But how does this media portrayal stack up against the feeling on the ground among party members at the CPC2017? This post explores that question with a comparison of first hand observations at party conference with some media analysis.

The media’s fixation on ‘Tory civil war’ and May’s speech of ‘mishaps’ does not sit comfortably alongside the general feeling among those Conservative members in attendance at the party’s 2017 conference. Perhaps surprisingly, there seemed to be a significant degree of support for the Prime Minister to remain in office. The alleged crisis surrounding May’s premiership and recent talk of former ministers’ attempts to oust her was not typical of discussion at CPC2017 fringe events. Support for May was most visibly demonstrated by the standing ovations of encouragement during May’s somewhat disrupted speech to conference last Wednesday.

On the ground, it appeared that this support was not simply a sympathetic response to the Prime Minister’s cough or the unwanted stage invasion during her speech. It was noticeable at earlier moments in the conference too. At events like the Conservatives North reception and a devolution networking session, figures such as the mayors of the West Midland and Tees Valley, Andy Street and Ben Houchen, respectively, reminded delegates of the party’s unexpected and unprecedented triumphs only months before at this year’s General Election. It would seem that support for May among Conservatives in the North and Midlands remains strong because they deem her to have played a key role in the success of their campaigns. Street and Houchen aside, the Conservatives also won (and subsequently retained) Copeland; and saw off Labour in Morley and Outwood. There is wide recognition that the Prime Minister still appeals to (often working-class) voters who may have otherwise voted Labour.

Likewise, north of the border, faith in the Prime Minister remains high among many of the new Scottish Conservative MPs and local councillors, who - like their leader Ruth Davidson MSP - attribute much of their success to May. But most importantly for the Scottish Tories, May is seen to have taken a strong stance in defence of the Union - and her willingness to publicly deny Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second independence referendum.

Moreover, support for May was evident across the party’s internal coalition, from the party’s centre ground to its right. Both the new chairman of Conservative Way Forward (CWF), James Cleverly, and his predecessor, Gerald Howarth, both declared their support for May to cheers from CWF followers. This was replicated by the socially liberal Tory Reform Group (TRG). During TRG events, support for the Prime Minister was declared by various speakers. While May’s attitude to Brexit is most likely to gain her support from the likes of Cleverly and Howarth, TRG members remember May’s leadership in spearheading the same sex marriage bill through Parliament; and her approach to placing modern slavery higher on the Government’s agenda.

From a party perspective, the conference attendees held tangible scepticism around Boris Johnson’s potential to lead the party. Meanwhile, the media continued to speculate that Johnson could be front runner to succeed May. During CPC2017, one member of the press divulged rumours that Johnson had received a lukewarm reception from a significant number of party members. This is reinforced by Andrew Marr’s post-conference article for The Spectator in which he claims that support for Johnson had reached a new low. Observations from the conference suggest that the witty Foreign Secretary was indeed, as he so often is, the subject of discussion at various fringe events. However, at this conference, Johnson himself had become the butt of jokes.

Ruth Davidson, in an interview with Times Columnist Matt Chorley, avoided directly criticising the Foreign Secretary (and referred to him only by his title), but offered the allegoric warning to her Scottish MSPs that, should they contradict her policy positions in newspaper articles, they could expect to be sacked. Undoubtedly, this was a dig at Johnson’s behaviour in recent weeks and perhaps a suggestion that Davidson feels the Foreign Secretary should be axed from the cabinet. It is also a stance which could be said to be typical of sentiments in the more conformist ranks of the party hierarchy. Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, also mocked Johnson (without naming him) by thanking guests at an energy panel for not choosing ‘the attraction in the main hall’.

In contrast, parts of the media have depicted golden-maned Johnson as ‘the lion’ and May as a dribbling diminished premier soon to be handed her P45. Television and radio, for example, the coverage, interviews and debate on BBC NewsThis Week and Radio 4, seem to have centred on the dynamics and dramas inside the Conservative Party. But, it was a diverse conference and a long leader’s speech and, if listened to in its entirety, there is significant substance and humility evident. So, here we go again with that old chestnut of a debate about style over and substance in political leadership. In this case, again, the British media seem typically attracted to the former. Their selective approach has once again focused the spotlight on very narrow and arguably remedial aspects of the overall conference and speech. Representation of the party’s policies and the content of the speech have been extremely light in the general media. In contrast, it would appear that the party faithful are themselves far less concerned by such superficial factors, when it comes to May and Johnson.

A key nagging question for further exploration is: would the media’s response to the prime minister’s performance be different if she were a man? Certainly, those scholars interested in researching gender, politics and the media have identified trends which indicate an inherent and widespread misogyny imbedded in global media content. If Johnson makes a blunder, he is portrayed as a buffoon. Then, with a collective school boy giggle and a macho slap on the back, he is revered by the press and goes on to climb the slippery pole. If May gets a sore throat, she is portrayed as being unfit for office.

May’s performance at CPC2017 is accompanied by a pre-existing media narrative. Since the 2017 General Election, the media have regularly painted the Prime Minister as ‘weak and wobbly’, following a disappointing election for the Conservatives, and yet she has since demonstrated significant resilience in carrying on in order to safeguard progress on Brexit. This could be argued to be demonstrable strength. Perhaps if Johnson had been in her place, and experienced a similar turn of unfortunate events, it would - it is food for thought.


Anthony Ridge-Newman is co-convenor of the PSA Conservatives & Conservatism Specialist Group and the Vice Chair of the PSA Political Marketing Specialist Group. His research and teaching have been based at Glasgow, Liverpool Hope, London, Oxford and Roehampton universities. Anthony has published two books: Cameron's Conservatives and the Internet (2014); and Tories and Television 1951-1964 (2016). He tweets @RidgeNewman.  Antony Mullen is a PhD student and Pemberton Scholar at Durham University and the Events Officer of the PSA Early Career Network. He is the Convenor of the Thatcher Network and will be in conversation with Lord Michael Heseltine at the network's 2018 conference in Liverpool.  He tweets @AntonyMullen.

Image: Marco Verch CC-BY-NC-ND