UK Politics

Conservative Party conference: Ministers brace for a bumpy week

Theresa May Image copyright Getty Images

One of the things I never tire of saying here is that two things can be true at the same time.

The latest seemingly contradictory duet?

Well, it is true that the next few days in Birmingham matter a lot to the Tory party - and to whether the prime minister's vision of Brexit survives the next few weeks and its passage through Parliament in the Autumn.

It is also true that what happens in Birmingham is not where the crucial moving parts really are.

Despite all the clamour and genuine unhappiness in parts of the Tory party about the Chequers compromise - the anger that it is a "betrayal" of the vote, along with more tepid frustration that if we end up in a half in/half out situation what was the point of it at all?

It is, cabinet ministers say privately, "crazy", "unrealistic", "pointless", to suggest that there is a real chance of changing her fundamental position right now.

Of course, the precise shape of the Brexit deal is not yet set.

But the view at the top of government is that it is simply too late for any kind of dramatic redrafting.

Remember, after all, it took more than two years to get to this point of compromise.

Remember too, that the EU is well aware that the PM is not going to shift, if she does indeed compromise further, until after this week.

That's one of the reasons why the unexpected rebuff at the Salzburg summit was such a surprise, after an unwritten deal had been done not to rock the boat until after the Tory conference.

The real action, the real drama will play out in the next three weeks between our negotiators and the senior actors in the UK government and Brussels and members of the EU.

There is a sense here that the big conversation is happening elsewhere.

Where of course the next few days do matter, is in setting the general mood and direction of the Tory party in the next few months.

That will of course have an impact on MPs who will have to make their decisions about an eventual deal in Parliament through this Autumn.

Ministers joke that getting to a deal with Brussels might end up being the easy bit.

Without a majority, Number 10 can't be sure they will be able to get a deal through.

The government machine expects that they will probably have the numbers - that MPs ultimately with the choice of a deal, or potential chaos, will choose something that looks more stable.

But they can't guarantee that entirely. And MPs who might be swithering in the middle do, and will in the coming weeks, listen to the views of their party members.

Expectations of the conference this week are low. Ministers are braced for a very bumpy week.

But the most critical conversations are yet to be had and may well not take place here at all.

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