“We all believe the same thing,” Danny Kruger told Tory activists in an upstairs room in Manchester. From anyone else, speaking at the most fractious Conservative conference in decades, it would have been a line served with an inch-thick coating of irony, but the MP for Devizes is incapable of sarcasm. (His other rhetorical senses have grown stronger to compensate. He can deliver the pained disappointment of ten men.)
But in a way he was right. The good news from Manchester is that after a difficult year the party is coming together around a shared vision. Any healthy political group will have diverse opinions. The vital thing is that everyone should agree on the big picture, and I’m happy to report that this conference has found one point of consensus. It’s that 13 years of Conservative government has been a disaster for Britain.
The focus of debate at the conference is precisely the way in which the party has made such a colossal mess
The focus of debate at the conference is precisely the way in which the party has made such a colossal mess, and who is to blame. Is it, as some here argue, the careless Tory government of 2010 to 2016? Others point, of course, to the weak, flailing, divided Tory government of 2016 to 2019. Rishi Sunak seems to feel that things went wrong in the bad Tory years from 2019 to 2022, and then collapsed completely in the appalling Tory government of 2022 (September) to 2022 (October).
On Monday the deposed leader from those fateful weeks arrived at conference to attempt a counter-revolution. (Or possibly a counter-counter-revolution. The Conservatives these days make Paris during the Terror seem easy to follow. Although at least no one is arguing these are the best of times.) It’s a mark of how bad things are for the Tories that not only did the last prime minister come to their conference to denounce the current one, but that few of us even raised an eyebrow when we heard she was on her way.
Liz Truss, for it was she, was speaking in a side room. Sketchwriters had been told we couldn’t come, and the doors were shut when we arrived because it was full. It was a worked example of the sort of petty regulation that Truss argues is holding Britain back.
Fortunately we were able to watch a feed from GB News, which seems to be the host broadcaster for the Conservative Party. It makes sense for them to work together. One is beset by allegations of misconduct and increasingly willing to air frankly mad conspiracy theories, and the other is a plucky new TV channel that needs all the help it can get.
On screen, Truss looked ill, pale and clammy. Perhaps that was the way GB News had lit her. Or perhaps the sign that you’re a real Conservative these days is looking like you have Covid. The feed flickered in and out, as though a Sunakite was attacking the line with an axe.
There in the front row were Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg, recently powers in the land, now internal exiles. Nigel Farage was in the room nodding along. That made sense. Like Truss, his view is that his solutions haven’t failed – they simply haven’t been tried.
Truss’s view seems to be that the blame for this mess could be divided between the Conservative governments from 2010 to September 2022, and the Conservative government from October 2022 to now. Not just them, of course. She also revealed the existence of an unnamed group of MPs who have a majority in Parliament and vote against housebuilding and fracking. Even now, political scientists are working round the clock to identify this mysterious faction.
We shouldn’t, Truss said, be getting our fuels from “regimes abroad who often have very poor records”. After all, as everyone in Manchester agrees, we have a regime with a very poor record right here at home. “People need to hear Conservative arguments again,” she said, although some voters may feel that Conservative arguments are all they ever hear.
Elsewhere the Chancellor of the Exchequer was speaking. A quick Google revealed that the post is currently held by Jeremy Hunt. Usually the chancellor’s speech to conference has been a major news moment. This wasn’t even a minor one. The hall was full, but the audience seemed unenthused. We had been told the chancellor had a rabbit in his hat, but the most exciting moment in his speech came when journalists elsewhere announced that HS2 was definitely being cancelled.
Hunt deplored “all the pessimists and declinists talking us down,” which may have been an attack on Labour, but could equally have described most of the fringe meetings happening as he spoke. And indeed sections of his own speech, as when he complained that police and nurses are too busy filing paperwork to solve crimes or tend patients.
From Hunt we headed up the stairs to where Kruger was compering a rally of the New Conservatives, a group of younger Tory MPs who want to change the direction of the party. Among the exciting new Conservative voices were those of up-and-coming stars Bill Cash, John Redwood and Iain Duncan Smith. This is definitely an election-winning movement, but it’s not yet clear who for.
Kruger called the speakers two by two. With things as bad for the party as they are, it makes sense to start a breeding programme. There are fears that in a couple of years, the number of Tories in captivity will have fallen by 50 percent.
Much of what the New Conservatives were calling for was fairly mainstream Tory thought: lower taxes, lower immigration, moving vocational education out of universities. It was an event that would have made perfect sense at a conference of an opposition party. Miriam Cates listed a series of tax measures that she said penalised families. She’s only been in Parliament since 2019, so she may not be aware that many of them were introduced or perpetuated by George Osborne.
“Most people,” Great Grisby’s Lia Nici announced, “learn by doing.” Though some people, as we’re seeing, manage to do a lot without learning anything.
Finally, someone in the audience spoke up. All this was very welcome, he said, but why was it only being talked about now? “We should have been doing this in 2015.” There was no answer.
Back on the other side of the conference centre, Truss was being mobbed by well-wishers. One got her to sign a copy of her disastrous mini-Budget. It’s possible there are fewer than a thousand people in the whole world who want Liz Truss’s signature, but all of them are inside the secure zone at Conservative conference. A secure zone is, frankly, the best place for them. Greater Manchester Police should give up trying to stop people getting into the conference. It would make much more sense to stop people from leaving.
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