Reflections on Conservative Party Conference | Helena Penfold


By attending my first Conservative Conference at 23, I seem to be shamefully behind the curve. Most other Young Conservatives I met were in their third or fourth year, and one not-quite-so-young attendee told me he had been ‘conferencing’ since 1998 when I was less than a year old.  

I am not sure what I imagined the Conference would be like; perhaps a collective of serious suits confined to the main arena, stiltedly rallying around Jerusalem and Johnson-esque bluster. However, I ended up exclusively attending the Fringe events. I was attracted to the honesty of the panellists, and the willingness to challenge one other’s ideas to find resolutions to relevant issues. You may be disappointed with me to know that even when our illustrious Prime Minister was addressing the auditorium on Wednesday, I did not make an appearance. Instead, I was navigating the long journey back to my jolly South West. I did watch Johnson’s talk later that evening on YouTube, safe in the Devonian certainty that if you saunter in any direction you will soon bounce off a cow or a pot of clotted cream.

Back home, now that I am having to admit to my more socialist-minded friends where it was that I disappeared to last week, a solemnity is setting in.

I think this gravitas is partly a result of a duty to avoid presenting the Conference as a superficial event. I would like to communicate to those who suffer with a case of Tory aversion, the running theme of service to others that I encountered amongst the attendees. I was impressed, for instance, by the members of the Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces who club together to fund veteran’s election campaigns, as well as the councillor who dealt with the pandemic within local politics, while also serving on the front line of the NHS.

I truly believe in the Conservative value system. It is through competition and opportunity that an individual can flourish, and a society succeeds. However, my worry is this; that once I start to persuade a person as to the merits of this aforementioned belief, that we as a party -or myself- will let them down, and they will never trust Conservatism again. 

This is why, when I was curled up on my sofa on Wednesday, my eyes fixed on the television screen, I felt a whisper of unease amidst the smiling that was my response to Johnson’s speech. I appreciate that it was a rallying cry, a setting out of principles and the bolstering of our hopes for the future. All of these, in principle, can be helpful to hear. But the phrase, ‘over-promising and under-delivering’ came to mind. I am inclined to agree with Dr Frank Luntz, who stated in an early talk at the Conference that when a politician makes a promise, we remember it and later recall this promise, asking ourselves the question, has he or she followed through?

A talk that particularly impressed me was one that I had not expected to hear. At the fringe event for the Conservative Lawyers, situated in what felt like the dungeon of the Midland Hotel, Dominic Raab arrived unexpectedly. He presented an eloquent explanation of the measures he plans on introducing as Secretary of State. The format was clear: Each problem he was setting out to tackle was identified, with both the current situation stated, as well as his specific plans to improve it within a realistic time frame.

Now I reach my overarching point: Conservatism is a philosophy that will succeed if we are clear about what it consists of, and then put it into practice. In our party, we have people who are well-intentioned, capable, and focussed. However, we will not be able to either convince the electorate to vote for us long-term, or to effect the lasting change we desire when in office, if we do not prove ourselves to be consistently trustworthy. We must be a party that is a collection of individuals whose word can be counted on. It comes down to this: Once a promise is made, be specific about how you will achieve the desired outcome, as well as a set time frame. Finally, if you promise something… make it happen.


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