For most of the last decade, Boris Johnson has dominated and disrupted Conservative conferences. Whatever efforts the party hierarchy made to minimise his impact, he would subvert it, appearing halfway through, in the midst of a press scrum at the railway station, before speaking at a fringe meeting that would completely overshadow the main conference.
It might have been assumed that, what with him now being in charge, he would abandon such games. After all, the conference is pretty much all about him. But it turns out he’s not taking any chances.
The “main hall” of this year’s conference is anything but. Instead it’s a partitioned-off area of the exhibition hall, with room for a few hundred people. The thin walls don’t go near the ceiling, with the result that Cabinet ministers’ speeches are a fight against the noise from the stands just yards away. As Rishi Sunak started speaking on Monday, applause from another event nearby was clearly audible. One minister who’s spoken from the stage says the acoustics are poor, with applause getting lost in the vast overhead space, rather than buoying you up. It was confidence-destroying, they said.
Johnson, of course, won’t be speaking there. A separate, much larger, hall has been set aside for his purposes. It turns out that “one rule for you, another for me” isn’t just how the Conservative Party treats the country, it’s also how Johnson treats his Cabinet.
The front-runner to replace Johnson if he were knocked down by a petrol lorry is Sunak – there was a long queue of disappointed people who wanted to get into the room – but his speech will have done little to help the effort. It sounded like it was written to introduce himself to the country, but also as though someone had then gone through it and cut half of it. Indeed, it weighed in at under 20 minutes, far less than a chancellor would usually get.
The front-runner to replace Johnson if he were knocked down by a petrol lorry is Sunak
If Labour last week ignored the reality of where their party is, the Tories this week seem to be ignoring reality altogether. There was barely a mention in Sunak’s speech of the fuel shortages, no discussion of the energy companies going bust everywhere, or the question of whether there’ll be turkeys for Christmas.
It opened with a self-deprecating joke, about meeting people in person for the first time and being greeted each time with the same words: “Wow, you’re even shorter in real life.” It’s unfair, but the main threat to Sunak’s ambitions right now is his size. If he does become leader, you can be sure the Tories won’t agree to a TV debate, or any other event where he has to stand next to Keir Starmer.
Sunak wanted to tell us about his personal journey as Chancellor, the people he’d relied on: family, colleagues, officials and finally, Johnson, who he referred to in the way that other faith groups talk about their creator, as “the person who made all this possible”. Boris is a jealous god, who both giveth and taketh away, and it’s wise to bend the knee.
“But the other thing I fell back on,” Sunak continued, “is something we all have in this room.” Money? No, no, “Our Conservative values.”
And what are those? It’s a bit hard to know at this conference. You can listen to Cabinet ministers holding forth about the need to pay hotel cleaners a proper wage with the enthusiasm of freshers from Surrey who’ve read the Guardian for the first time. Chris Loder, a Tory MP, says he hopes supermarket supply chains will collapse so that farmers can once again “sell their milk in the village shop like they did decades ago.” Meanwhile the way Johnson talks about the state of the country, you wouldn’t know the Conservatives have been running things for last decade.
On the conference fringes, Bruges Group attendees are pretty certain they know what Conservative values are, and they don’t see them in this government. Johnson was denounced on Monday as no better than Ted Heath – there is no graver insult – for the levels of spending the government has hit. While Sunak might say it was Tory principles that led him to put the nation on furlough during the pandemic, it’s hard to see how Labour principles would have taken the government to a very different place.
But there are other principles. “I believe that mindless ideology is dangerous,” Sunak said. “I’m a pragmatist. I care about what works, not about the purity of any dogma.”
Having reminded us all of the important division in Tory politics, Sunak moved effortlessly to a call for unity
That too has its limits, apparently. “I remember over five years ago being told that if I backed Brexit my political career would be over before it had even begun,” the chancellor said. “Well, I put my principles first and I always will.” This is over-egging things. Even when it looked like Leave would lose the referendum in 2016, backing Brexit was hardly career suicide for an ambitious Tory MP. The real target of that section might have been Sunak’s main rival to succeed Johnson, Liz Truss, who made the opposite judgement.
Having reminded us all of the important division in Tory politics, Sunak moved effortlessly to a call for unity. “The worst parts of politics are driven by fear,” he said, in what was probably not intended as a coded attack on recent Conservative election campaigns.
“When people get scared they create divisions,” he said. “They say you’re either with us or you’re with them.” This section was supposed to be about Labour, but it sounded quite a lot like a description of the Dominic Cummings era of Conservatism.
“But you cannot make progress,” Sunak concluded, “if you’re pitting people against each other.” A few feet away sat Johnson, who has an 80-seat majority that says different.
It would have been interesting to see the speech as it was originally written. Did Sunak receive it back with red pen through it, a stray blond hair between the pages? Johnson has limited interest in boosting potential rivals.
There’s a theory that the prime minister deliberately appoints tall ministers to the Treasury in order to make the chancellor look like a hobbit. It’s funny, but it’s also insecure. Watching the Cabinet making truncated speeches in a tiny hall, one is left with the impression that it’s Johnson who suffers from small man syndrome.
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