Manchester, the grinding Victorian gothic horror city, with its dirty pedigree of iron and smoke, is grim no longer. The shells of gargoyled halls, warehouses, and station sheds house four-star hotels, sub-Shoreditch bars, and brochure-baiting convention centres. The sounds are all power-drilling and concrete smashing. Resurrection and destruction are the same.
The Tories were here, last week, for Conference, at the height of their uncannily revived powers.
Priti and Michael, Rishi and Nadine, were spreading their wide wings in Manchester Central, the singed remnant of some 19th century NASDAQ, now a corporate events space. The place was choking with Conservative slogans and branding, and boosterisms; but were they anything more than fresh enamel licked on the same old Westminster banger?
I was here because I wanted to watch the political body get pressed by conspiring lobbyists and cringing public affairs officers. I wanted to understand the people who will rule over us for the next decade. Had they really become the “people’s party”? Were they really more Northern, more working class, more in touch with basic realities? Did “levelling up” Britain mean anything at all? And did they really know what to do with that sweet majority, with all that delicious power?
If they were the people’s party, then it was ostensibly for people like Greg. I found him palely loitering around the exhibits one morning in a three-piece tweed suit. Both he and the suit appeared new. “Personally,” Greg said, “I’m nineteen.” He was from Harlow, Essex. (The 20th most deprived area in England.) His mother was a teaching assistant. His father was a drug dealer. He had never been to one of these before.
Conservatism gave him an identity. A way of defining himself contrarily. He said he’d hated school. Hated his Left-wing teachers. Hated, he admitted, his Left-wing home. He was utterly sincere. The new Conservatism had offered him enough to make the journey to Manchester. There were probably more Gregs in the party than there had been for a generation.
Did the Gregs have a champion? It was supposed to be Michael Gove. But the Minister for Levelling Up had pitched his tent so large that he was lost in it. Gove’s levelling up agenda was too wide, too vague. What did it mean to say that he wanted to “ensure people live their best life”? Promising everything would be another way of doing nothing.
But at least Gove sounded cheerful. All of them did. “Now”, Rishi Sunak posted on Instagram, “is the time to show them that our plan will deliver.” In their speeches and their digital branding the ministers rolled together many different optimisms. To be a ranking member of this government was to be present with vigour and joyfulness.
Let the other side talk about fuel shortages. Let Dom talk about trolleys. Let the Telegraph spit about taxes. After Covid, after Brexit, it was time for peace. It was the moment to say, as Nadine Dorries did — against all sense, all reason, and all justice — that No Time to Die was the “best Bond ever”. None of it needed to be true.
The only statesman-in-embryo for miles around Manchester was the Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen. A plausibly blue-collar, municipal Tory, reminiscent of Joe Chamberlain in the specificity of his vision, and in the way he embodied a sense of place.
He talked poetically and pointedly in a flat, steady Geordie voice at a fringe event one evening. Now was the time, he said; the Conservatives could rebuild and restore the North. He described a radiant future, where green tech brought the industrial revolution full circle, back to Teesside, back to Newcastle, Darlington, Stockton. Houchen’s revolution went backwards to reclaim the future. The superabundance, the rewarded greed, the hard materialism, and the worldly ambition of mid-19th century England would be born again. History could be forced. You had to push against it. Ben Houchen was doing this in Tees Valley. He had cajoled and eked away until industrial jobs were returned to Hartlepool and Redcar. But this time the revolution would not be iron squealing on iron, it would not turn country boys into broken factory hands, or pollute the rivers, or poison the sky black. These industries would be green, pure.
I was taken along by him, briefly. But he was only a mayor.
I met other Gregs. Four late teenage, working-class Tories from — rub your eyes — Liverpool. Owen Jones buzzed around them with a microphone, his mouth slack, bewildered, bitter. (The four did not make it into Jones’ “behind the scenes” conference video report.) Oh we hate him, we hate him, we hate him, the four boys said as they approached Jones. “But still,” one whispered, “we must get a selfie with him.” I asked them who their favourite Prime Minister was.
“Thatcher,” one said, “Thatcher forever.”
It stunned: Thatcher still burned above Conservative politics, charging her imitators with warmth and light. What else could explain Liz Truss? The new Foreign Secretary dressed like Thatcher, snubbed and blunted enemies like Thatcher, and started, whenever I watched her speak, to look like Thatcher too. Truss’s events were the most queued for. The members were pilgrims shuffling towards a splinter of the true Eighties cross. Truss offered them sacraments of fiscal rigour, delivered with leathery personal firmness. For in the pits of their hearts, the members didn’t want a big, caring, doing state — where levelling up was purportedly taking them. They didn’t want to go there. They certainly didn’t want to pay for it either. What they wanted was a dominatrix to lovingly roast the Government’s flab off with a blowtorch.
These were the Tories who went, like Truss, longest into the night, after the daytime, orderly, brisk conference had been washed aside by the 6pm tide of expensed alcohol and gossip.
This conference happened in padded back rooms, invite-only suite parties, and long carpeted ballrooms in the bowels of the hotel. It was stranger, and darker, than the day was. Every night there was a sense of homecoming: after the election, which was never properly celebrated by the party; after the lockdowns, which made so many of them unhappy and uneasy.
The bar fizzed. Boys younger than tadpoles dragged their seats near to enthroned junior ministers; howlingly drunk princes screamed for the right kind of bread; dazed spads slid off chairs; rumours were exchanged: sexual escapades, job promotions, if Carrie was even allowed in her husband’s suite, more sexual escapades, and whether the Prime Minister will use his big speech to raise the minimum wage. (He will not.) And at every table, a suit lapel stuck with ironic lake blue badges that said “Tory Scum”.
A few knew how weird it was to be the “people’s party.” “I’d rather be the party of the working man than the party of the rich,” one of the princes had roared. “But I still want to be very well off.”
Would all those pristine first-time Conservative voters like what they saw at this conference, if they’d been here? They would have liked Houchen, maybe even voted for him. They would have put some chicken nuggets in the oven for Greg. Perhaps they would have spotted Liz Truss’s talons. Would they have noticed where real power in the party lay? Trollope writes somewhere that people who take an interest in politics should “not be desirous of peeping behind the scenes”. They wouldn’t like what they discovered.
At the top of the party was what a bad columnist would call the liberal metropolitan elite. The enduring sentimental stereotype of Toryism in England is utterly misleading. It’s still the rah-rah, port-sinking, organ music playing, red melton fabric, Oxbridge, Brideshead, “young fogey”. They are extinct. Kaputt. That Boris plays this character sometimes leads to confusion. The Left think they are fighting Simon Heffer, when they’re actually fighting Henry Newman.
The leading factions in the party are as distant from people in Redcar as the Blairites became. For now they are simply better at patting voters on the head than the Left is. Conservative power is wielded by spads who look like they were laying over in Manchester before a flight to LAX. An explosion in a Hugo Boss factory clothed them all in the same tieless blue suit. And the women strode by in dresses high in the neck and long to the floor. Headbands were mandatory. They are photocopies of Carrie.
Together the blue suits and the headbands formed a court, which squatted in government. They were the fluffers and pot-holders, the heralds and jugglers, the princes and flunkeys. Observing them did not make me feel confident about the power they had bedded so luxuriantly down in. The court only knew messaging and campaigning. Nobody knew how to govern. Not in the Labour Party either. “We’re not run by anybody,” Rory Stewart said in 2014. “The secret of modern Britain is there is no power anywhere.”
But the Prime Minister still had power, of a sort. The other ministers gave their speeches in a squashed auditorium. He had a pharaonic hall to give the culminating barnstormer in. A big venue for the big boy.
It didn’t matter what he said. Nothing could move this government until the Labour Party woke up. Their power was a given. He could stand there and announce bread rationing next week and go up in the polls. They’d build a statue of him in Parliament Square. Everyone knew he had ten years by default. All that was required of him was a presence, to keep plates spinning in the air, to offer up punchlines.
Maybe though, after effete Boris, after this era of frothy giggling and wily manoeuvring, the party and the country would grow weary of clowns and sharpers. However ingenious they were at game-playing. Then Houchen — or a figure like him — might have a chance.
This is what the country needed. It is not what the party craves.
Ultimately the theme of conference was not whether the the Tories were changing. It was the glitter of this easy, empty power. The good ideas the Conservatives had, and all the good they could do, were at risk of being washed away by it.