Boris Johnson, Brexit and party splits are set to dominate the conference season
Brexit, leadership woes and growing rumours of a party splitting – rarely have the Conservatives and Labour gone into party conference season facing virtually the same challenges so intensely.
As always, this year's Tory conference will be all about Boris Johnson. Love him or loathe him, and they seem to be the only opinions available on the former London Mayor, Johnson commands attention like no other British politician.
The Conservative conference, set to be held in Birmingham from 30 September to 3 October, feels like the climax to a Jeffrey Archer novel. After a summer of seething, Tories opposed to Theresa May's Brexit plan will be hoping to demonstrate the strength of feeling among the grassroots members at numerous fringe events, culminating with a speech by Johnson on the Tuesday – just a day before the Prime Minister addresses the party faithful.
Read more: Why is Boris Johnson taking his punishment beating over Brexit?
The former Foreign Secretary's speech will be the culmination of concerted effort by Brexiteers to dominate the fringe events. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Priti Patel and other high profile anti-Chequers MPs will be working the rooms outside the main hall, hoping to make opposition voices so loud that May will not be able to ignore them – or drown them out with a well-timed coughing fit.
Mansfield MP Ben Bradley, who quit as Tory vice-chair for youth in protest at the Chequers agreement, admits the conference will be dominated by Brexit. "It's going to be front and centre." North West Leicestershire MP Andrew Bridgen, who has already put in a letter calling for Theresa May to quit as leader, believes the conference will be the moment the Chequers agreement falls apart. "It's time for the party activists to engage with the politicians. The membership will put considerable pressure on the leadership," he said.
If anti-Chequers MPs are right in their assessment of the feeling towards the plan, May will deliver her keynote speech on the Wednesday under even more pressure than she was last year. Coming off the back of the election humiliation, there was a sense at the conference that party members did not want to kick her while she was down, and any hint of a coup against the leader would only bolster Labour's gathering momentum.
Last year May had to sell herself as the person who could be trusted to deliver Brexit. Now she has to sell her actual plan.
At least those Tories disgruntled with their party's leadership have someone to coalesce around. The lack of a Boris Johnson figure in Labour is one the reasons centrist MPs are unable to wrestle control of the party from Jeremy Corbyn.
Read more: Exclusive: David Davis to head off Chequers with 'Alternative Brexit Plan'
This year's conference is being held in Liverpool, a city synonymous with hard left battles in the party's past. After a summer dominated by rows over antisemitism, leading Streatham MP Chuka Umunna to brand the party "institutionally racist", the prospect of thousands of activists and MPs spending four days debating politics at events with free booze could be a cocktail for disaster. One MP admitted that her colleagues had been advised over safety concerns, while another said it could be "pretty tasty in that respect."
Norwich South MP Clive Lewis was more relaxed, suggesting the aggression prevalent on social media will not spill out in the conference bars or fringe events. He said: "I genuinely don't think it's going to be too bad. Social media is not a reflection on the real world."
Lewis also talked down suggestions of a major split in Labour, adding: "If you look, the vast majority of people are supportive of the direction of the party."
Read more: Tony Blair: Moderates may have lost the Labour party forever
Another MP was not so sure, and said: "It's hard to see how people walk back from some of the comments they have made." Referring to the row over Umunna's suggestion that Corbyn needed to "call off the dogs" after votes in no confidence in some Labour MPs, they added: "The way in which people have gone after him in response shows they have clearly decided that Chuka isn't going to be a Labour MP for very long."
Aside from infighting, Brexit will take up much of the bandwidth at fringe events, but the discussion is likely to focus on the other side of the debate compared to the Tory conference. The leadership are under increasing pressure to support another referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, and Nottingham East MP Chris Leslie is one of those determined to force them to change their stance. "The People's Vote will obviously be the big issue," he said.
Yet the those debates will hold depends on who turns up. Many Labour MPs are only attending for specific events, and one suggesting less than half of the parliamentary party will bother to make the trip.
Read more: Vince Cable to step down as Lib Dem leader next year
The Lib Dem conference takes place in Brighton from 15-18 September and members will be hoping the party is better at organising a seaside get-together than a leadership contest. Sir Vince Cable's "I'm leaving but who knows when?" announcement last week was baffling, but it won't stop a beauty pageant of prospective successors.
The one to watch is Oxford West and Abingdon MP Layla Moran, who is seen by party insiders as offering a clean break from the Lib Dems' recent past. Having only been elected in 2017, Moran is not tainted by the mark of coalition government.
Nevertheless, the Lib Dems will need more than a fresh face if they're to challenge the dominance of Labour and the Tories – no matter how divided the two main parties are.