There’s a kind of hush all over Tory conference.
Bridge of Don is hardly the Vegas Strip but it is even more subdued this weekend for the presence of the Scottish Conservatives.
Delegates — 500 or so by my count — milled around with all the joy of an IKEA husband on a Saturday afternoon. Chatter was low and the bulk of conversation took place in grimace.
The Prime Minister’s motorcade swept into the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre at 3.30pm and swept back out 66 minutes later. Her stage stood at the centre of the Aberdeen Energy Park and Theresa May showed the steely vigour that confounds even her bitterest critics.
But pluck isn’t enough and the PM’s pale countenance betrayed a long night of rolling catastrophe in the English local elections. Across 19 verbless minutes, she sought to gin up her Caledonian footsoldiers in a way that only Ruth Davidson still can.
A speech of bobbing adjectives — the past was ‘great’, the future ‘bright’ — was heard in that terse politeness of Scots of a certain generation. My granny was like that. If you upset her, she’d still serve you tea and scones but scrape the butter on so thinly the knife hardly needed washing afterwards.
May’s reception was mostly of the scraped-butter variety, and no wonder. She brought up Brexit — something other speakers here have avoided — to announce that her ‘one clear aim’ was ‘to get a deal over the line in Parliament’.
Even after everything that has happened, she is still retailing the same deal that everyone outside her front room despises. Some say she’s robotic and unresponsive; I’m starting to think she’s doing all this for a dare.
She got about a dozen rounds of applause, every one from pandering, either by telling the audience how well they’d done to revive their party or by reminding them the SNP were a right lot of rotters.
Not long ago, the Tories had only one MP. ‘What turned things around so dramatically?’ she teased. ‘I could answer that question in one word.’
No, ‘Ruth’. The mere mention had them giddy. It’s quite the sight: a Tory prime minister name-dropping her Scottish leader to get applause.
Broadsides against the Nationalists were tossed out with the pained eyeroll of a headmistress discussing the school’s problem pupil.
She tutted: ‘I have an old fashioned belief that in a democracy, if you put a question to the people, you should respect the answer they give you.‘ The voters had just given her 1,000 fewer councillors but such details were lost in patriotic pabulum.
‘There is so much creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship here in Scotland,’ May said with all the jaunty passion of the speaking clock reading a death notice.
Still, a few MSPs made the effort. Murdo Fraser reminisced about his time in the trenches during the independence vote: ‘I lived through the 2014 referendum campaign,’ he shuddered. ‘I fought tooth and nail‘. Mostly, he trolled Celtic fans on Twitter but this was his Portillo moment: Who Gers, wins.
The day’s star turn was the man who has been holding the fort for Ruth Davidson. Jackson Carlaw has been a Tory activist since Pitt the Younger was young indeed and the members consider him one of them. They were barely done with one cheer before the next went up.
His rhetoric was fittingly risque: Nicola Sturgeon was ‘a politician who turns milk sour on the doorstep’. He grinned in feline satisfaction at the work of his claws. Carlaw is a high-camp connoisseur of low-camp putdowns and First Minister’s Questions will be duller without his ebullient snark.
The woman they keep touting as the next first minister will address the conference this afternoon but she was to be found buzzing around behind the scenes yesterday. Theresa May told delegates: ‘The boss is back’. She wasn’t talking about herself.