It is not that the slogan, 'Opportunity', is so vacuous. It is not that Theresa May is reduced to announcing policies that are actually court rulings. It is not that the speeches by would-be leadership candidates are so despairingly flat and scripted. It is not that the main conference hall is empty, while those weird-looking young Tory activists flock to fringe meetings with Jacob Rees-Mogg about Brexit.
Yes, the Conservative Party is on life-support. Yes, it's being kept alive by its grip on the apparatuses of government, its historic connections of business, and its support in the legacy media. Yes, after the Labour conference and the tens of thousands attending The World Transformed, the buzz of ideas, this is a funeral procession. Yes, the most interesting thing that anyone has said was when Rees-Mogg called Qadaffi's Libya "the republic of jam jars or something", because foreign names are intrinsically ridiculous. But none of that is really surprising.
What is astonishing is that this conference is seemingly set up to avoid doing any of the things that conferences usually do. Tory conference has never been a democratic affair, so nothing important was going to be decided. But in the past, they would allow activists to get up and rant about criminals and immigrants. This would occasionally result in an embarrassing clip, but it would also energise the activist base. Instead, they've lined up a parade of awkward speeches by show-stoppers like Jeremy Hunt. These people still think Corbyn lacks charisma.
Why are they deliberately being as dull as possible? I suspect the leadership does not want the Brexit sentiment that is boiling over in fringe meetings to dominate the reporting of conference. Especially with the mood among right-wing activists at points tending toward George Soros conspiracies and the like, they do not want a queue of people rushing the podium to call May a traitor. Until Brexit is a done deal, they're keeping the rank and file under control.
But the other thing they're not doing, far more arrestingly, is talking to voters. Look at Phil Hammond's speech, if you can bear to. He is the chancellor at a time when, as he acknowledges, capitalism is not delivering for millions of people. He recognises that Corbynism, which he despises, is built on lived experience. His speech could have been used to stake out some sort of 'Red Tory' agenda aimed at consolidating support among working class conservatives. Instead, he stuck to the austerian script hedged with techno-utopian babble about how great it will be to have driverless cars. He had no concrete proposals whatsoever apart from a digital services tax. He had nothing to say about addressing the systemic weaknesses in the economy.
Who was Hammond talking to? It wasn't a speech designed to capture the headlines with inspiring policy announcements. It wasn't for voters. Some of it, the Brexit parts, were addressed to his opponents in the Conservative Party. Most of it seemed to be about reassuring the City of London that the government would stick to austerity, defend the currency and build up "fiscal firepower" to guard against a No Deal Brexit. More importantly, it was about reassuring business that the Tories would not take the route of populist nationalism in answer to Corbynism.
This was a conference in which the Tory establishment kept a lid on the insurgent Right. But I suspect that isn't going to last. With Boris Johnson saying "fuck business", Steve Baker bashing the CBI, and the CBI scolding the Tories ahead of conference, the schism between the middle class Right and the business establishment is growing.
Look also at how the Brexit Right are openly, gleefully, politicising the state machine. They demonise Olly Robbins, a conventional bourgeois civil servant and faction-fighter for Theresa May, and glorify Crawford Falconer, an outsider to the British state, whose professional authority comes from his role in the OECD and WTO and world trade liberalisation. They see Robbins, probably rightly, as covertly manoeuvring for the softest possible Brexit, while Falconer gushes to the press about the world being Britain's oyster after being freed from EU shackles. They complain about the CBI's influence on policymaking over Brexit (Baker blames the CBI for Chequers) and lament the Treasury elites and civil service establishment.
This is going to turn into, or is already becoming, a populist challenge to the existing, business-based, state power bloc, from the middle class Right. They do not aim to overthrow the power bloc, any more than Thatcher did. But they want to use the populist dynamic to recompose it, to shift it and the balance of the state apparatuses, further to the Right. Of course, to do this they will need to take the Conservative leadership, which would necessitate having a candidate whom the parliamentary party will support. That is currently not on the cards, which means the discontent will continue to boil away under the surface.
So this conference seems to be about surviving, keeping the rightist insurgents under control, and reassuring business. That's why it's barely a conference at all, and what little energy there is in the Conservative Party huddles around fringe events. They'll be lucky to keep this under control until Brexit is done with.