After a year off due to the Covid-19 pandemic, party conference season is almost upon us once again for better or worse.

If the thought of being crowded into sweaty windowless rooms to discuss policy is off-putting at the best of times, in a post-pandemic world and with infection rates creeping up again it remains to be seen just how well-attended they will be.

But one thing is for certain, the party conferences can make or break a party leader and this year both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have reasons to be nervous.

Party conferences are unique in bringing together all of the players from a political party together under one roof.

Surrounded by warm white wine and beige food, MPs, Peers, Councillors, donors, party activists and a phalanx of lobbyists all gather nominally to set out the party agenda for the coming year. 

It is undeniable that public interest in these events has dwindled – they used to be broadcast from “gavel to gavel” on national TV, but are now relegated to soundbites from the main speeches on the evening news bulletins, with the fringe programme once a bastion of policy debate, now merely a money-making exercise for the parties.

But where they still hold sway is in the cut and thrust of politics, in the bars and halls of a party conference you pick up vital knowledge of what is going on – who is in the ascendency? Who is on manoeuvres? Who are the party faithful flocking towards?

It is also a prime time for the leader’s grip, or lack of it, on the party to be tested.

And it is tested not on the strength of the leader’s speech, as important as that is, or on their dance moves, as ill-advised as that may be, but on the chatter in the bars, corridors, and hotel rooms over the course of the conference.

And it is that chatter that will be worrying both Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer over the next few weeks.

The Prime Minister is facing the strongest test of his leadership since his landslide victory in 2019 – with the lowest approval ratings of his premiership and discontent on the backbenches on issues ranging from Net Zero to planning reform and the Afghanistan crisis, he runs the risk that the murmuring of discontent coalesces into something greater, and more lethal.

And for Keir Starmer the prospect of all his party gathered in one place is no more appealing. With Labour still struggling to make serious dents in the Conservative’s polling lead and serious discontent on the Left driven by his general direction and purge of some newly proscribed groups, the trip to Brighton was never going to be plain sailing for the embattled leader. Add into the mix an unexpected win of the Unite leadership by left-wing outsider Sharon Graham, and the chatter could erupt into outright mutiny.

The next few weeks will be instructive for both leaders, and for the country, with an election believed to most likely be in 2023.

Both parties will be jittery about their prospects and their leaders and wondering when would be the optimum time to make a change if one is to be made. At both conferences, aspiring leaders will be working the rooms to gauge their support and dissenters openly encouraging rebellion.

Neither Johnson and Starmer will be able to stop that from happening, the challenge for both men is to seize the narrative and shut out the rabble.

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