Getting down to business

The Conservatives have baby fever


“There are not enough babies being born!” The National Conservatism Conference was, as it were, getting down to business. We had come to learn about the future of the right. It turns out to involve people having more babies. At last, we had found Boris Johnson’s policy legacy. 

We need to have more babies because there aren’t enough young people in Britain. Although one of the other themes of Monday was the tremendous importance of stopping people from coming to Britain, because there isn’t room for them. It was confusing. Is there some qualitative difference between immigrants and British babies? No one said. It definitely couldn’t be a racial thing because Suella Braverman turned up in the afternoon to assure the audience that they weren’t racists. Not everyone was persuaded: the Home Secretary was interrupted twice by hecklers who disagreed. 

The first interruption of the day had come at the start of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s speech in the morning. A man walked on behind him and politely interrupted. It was so smoothly done that for a moment he seemed to be one of the organisers, there to ask the owner of a blue Daimler to go to reception because they were blocking the car park. “I would like to draw your attention to a few of the characteristics of fascism,” he said, instead, and at that point security charged in. 

At last, a Tory MP with the courage to suck up to a newspaper editor!

Rees-Mogg’s rhetorical skill is charging past things he doesn’t like. His speech argued that there is something naturally English about resisting international superstates that take away national sovereignty. “In the Conservative notion,” he explained, “power comes from the bottom up. The distinction is with an international order that is top-down, heavy-handed and imposed by the strong.” He skipped through history, from Thomas Aquinas to the Treaty of Westphalia to the Battle of Waterloo, before jumping on to accession to the Common Market in 1972. Were the English involved in any heavy-handed erosions of national sovereignty in the 19th century? There wasn’t time to say. Presumably the Raj was the response to a bottom-up cry to be governed from London.

Much of the rest of his speech was Hot Dog Toryism. The country is in a terrible mess, and Rees-Mogg is just trying to find the guys who did this. He denounced the Budget and the failure to scrap EU regulations. He even denounced Voter ID, a policy he shepherded through Parliament, as a failed attempt to rig the vote. It wasn’t clear whether he had always been against it because of the rigging, or simply was now because it hadn’t worked. 

Whose fault was all this? Those labouring under the misapprehension that the Conservative party has, in some sense, been in government since 2010 will be excited to learn that we’ve actually only had a proper Conservative government since the end of 2019. We can be confident that the Year Zero will be reset again after the next election. True Brexit hasn’t failed; it has never been tried.

There was a vague sense throughout the day that the big-name speakers were pitching for some other unspecified job. Rees-Mogg, who may sense that his best days in the Commons are behind him, went off-script to denounce quangocrats for keeping Paul Dacre out of the House of Lords. At last, a Tory MP with the courage to suck up to a newspaper editor!

Over the course of the morning, we learned about all sorts of baddies, from the contraceptive pill to a lobby group that was new to me, “Big Death”. It’s not clear who’s funding Big Death, but it does always seems to get its way in the end. Then, after a lunch break in which we were all presumably supposed to do our national duty by impregnating someone the audience was notably short of people who might be impregnated  we got the main event, Braverman.

She dealt well enough with her hecklers. “Anyone else?” she asked, after the second one. Pleased with the laugh, she tried another gag: “It’s audition day for the Shadow Cabinet.” In more ways than one. Braverman’s speech felt very much like a pitch for the role of leader of the opposition, which may be coming vacant in 18 months.  

It was an outstanding Tory leadership pitch — not, to be clear, in the sense that it was intellectually coherent or rhetorically inspiring. What it did very well was explain to the audience that they were the goodies and everyone else was the baddies. There’s quite a strong chance that this is what Tories will want to hear after the next election. From toppling statues to women with penises to not apologising for slavery, she hit every button, as though an artificial intelligence had been fed a bunch of Telegraph leader columns and asked to turn them into a speech. 

As the leading candidate of the party’s right, the Home Secretary made some effort to trim towards the centre ground, disowning Trumpism and isolationism. Her audience was unsure about this. When she insisted that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was our business, the applause was noticeably limp. If I were on the front line in Donetsk, I wouldn’t be confident that this lot was going to send me any more Storm Shadow missiles. 

“The facts of life,” Braverman finished, “are ultimately Conservative.” Presumably that’s why the party feels it has a stake in the birth rate.

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