Conservative fears of a downward spiral

Theresa May leaves the conference centre in Manchester Image copyright PA

Guess what. It's not about Boris Johnson. He sucks the oxygen, grabs the attention, "the blond one" excites the Tory crowds, as well as driving his colleagues up the wall with his behaviour.

Today in a speech about "the lion that will roar", (wonder what he's trying to say there?) activists may cheer him and colleagues will gnash their teeth as, in a way only he can, he tickles the party's tummy.

The fuss around Boris Johnson is the symptom not the cause. The problem that is increasingly on people's minds at this grisly conference is that the Tories might be only at the start of a decline, which becomes impossible to escape.

One former minister says, "there is a smell of decay", another, that it is "hopeless, but we are resigned to the nightmare". Cabinet ministers fret that Theresa May simply doesn't have the ideas or imagination to reboot either her leadership or their party.

One of her colleagues says "how did she blow the party up in 12 months?", lamenting how her premiership has paralleled Gordon Brown, who after years of hoping to get to Downing Street arrived there with little to say, bewildered by the sudden challenge of the top job. Another says she looks "bent and broken".

But there is little evidence yet that there is anyone willing or brave enough to confront this publicly, the younger generations of Tory MPs are furious with the top brass, but none of them yet ready to step up to the plate.

For now, Mrs May's glum cabinet colleagues mostly believe the best option is to get behind her, to show loyalty with the hope of regaining authority to govern, the slow grind of government competence could restore credibility over time.

These are unpredictable times. One minister even told me they feel optimistic about the next election, believing the Corbyn phenomenon can't sustain for five years.

But in government and on the backbenches and in Manchester, optimism is a minority view. Stopping the slide the priority.

The fear here is not really that Boris Johnson is grabbing all the attention, it's that this party could be dying inside, and it finds itself with a leader who might struggle to stop the downward spiral.

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