Last year, the Conservative Party was in the grip of decadence. This year, it faces apocalypse. Their 2021 conference, in Manchester, was like The Wolf of Wall Street. Wine poured from the sky. Laughter ricocheted off the walls. They all thought, everyone did, that the Conservatives had another decade in power.
This year, in Birmingham, it was more 28 Days Later. The list of absent MPs, led by Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, stretched back to London. “There’s nobody here,” one member who attended the last 12 conferences mourned. “It feels deserted.” Twelve long years. We have tasted every philosophical flavour of Conservatism: David Cameron’s bougie-patrician, nudge theory-driven paternalism. Theresa May’s fretful Home Counties authoritarianism. Boris Johnson’s giggly One Nation boosterism. All gone.
We have watched iteration after iteration of big ideas guru try to stir the Tories’ heavy dough. We have seen Steve Hilton pad around Downing Street in his bare feet, intent on squeezing the entire civil service into Somerset House. We have seen Nick Timothy celebrated as an intellectual, for his beard as much as his brain. We have seen Dominic Cummings somersault from blogger, to Rasputin, to blogger again. How many of their plans — other than Cummings’s Brexit, which he was swiftly bereaved of after squabbling with Johnson’s wife — have actually stuck to anything? They’ve all gone.
We are left with Liz Truss, and Kwasi Kwarteng, both anonymously described as “dead” before anyone even arrived at New Street station. The Prime Minister’s “growth plan” has to work, and quickly. Labour’s poll-lead is as large as 33 points. Young conservatives filled Birmingham’s bars, happily blabbing that they will vote for Keir Starmer in 2024. “A 1997 wipeout might be the best we can hope for,” said one spad.
It really might be. For four days the Tories behaved like demons ambling across a tortured Hieronymus Bosch landscape. They squabbled and scourged and scratched at each other; so insular; entirely twisted up within their own canvas, seeming to forget that the rest of the country could see the black paint they were smearing everywhere. They fought over the Chancellor’s 45p tax cut U-turn; they fought over benefits; they fought over Suella Braverman and Michael Gove.
“We are CONSERVATIVES,” boomed Kwasi Kwarteng during his Monday afternoon keynote. But the truth is, after 12 contorted years, none of them are sure what a conservative is anymore. Was Kwasi Kwarteng a conservative? Here was a man who was probably happiest picking through the back stacks of the London Library, cheerfully collecting obscure books on economic theory, shouting lines that could have been written for a dumbo libertarian congressman from Alabama.
Was Kemi Badenoch a conservative? Yes, said Conor Burns, MP for Bournemouth West. He suggested she was “the future of the party” and understands the need to “move beyond Instagram posts about free trade agreements”. Was Jacob Rees-Mogg a conservative? He floated around the fringe like a page torn from a Max Beerbohm essay, bantering about sending his children up chimneys, and thundering about a “return to common law principles”. The members loved him, they have always loved him, and as ever, they confused his impotent sarcasm for Wildean drollery. “What is my job?” he mused rhetorically at one event, and I was worried that someone might tell him: nobody knows anymore.
From the rubble, two conservative visions began to emerge. First, there was Michael Gove’s. He moved sprucely around the conference, making what political journalists call “interventions” and firing what the armaments industry describe as “missiles”. Watching Gove at an UnHerd event on Tuesday afternoon, you could sense how good it was to be out of this government. He looked relaxed; in his conversation he rippled widely over Michael Oakeshott and Malcolm X, Hamilton and Dad’s Army, Lord Salisbury and TS Eliot. He did not have to say Truss was shambolic — or as she was constantly referred to everywhere here by Tories, a “dud”. When he said the party could only win the next election if it returned to the “bedrock” 2019 manifesto, the point was made. The British people were “Boris Johnsonian”, said Gove. They wanted strong national institutions, strong borders, and “no flights of ideological fantasy”. There was his vision. It was coherent, though until Truss goes, it will be ignored.
The other vision was Suella Braverman’s. Unlike Gove, the Home Secretary spoke to the party, not the country. And she won this conference — the proof was in all the applause she was lavished with. On the fringe, Braverman performed a complex pirouette that managed to undermine both the 45p tax rebels and the Government. Gove and the rebels were “airing dirty laundry in public” — they had staged “a coup”. And Truss and Kwarteng, she implied, had been too weak to stand up to them. Braverman’s vision was Norman Tebbitism, rebooted for the culture wars, performed with jarring sweetness and enthusiasm. “My delight,” she said on Tuesday, “is annoying the Left”. “My dream,” she said, “is to see a front page of the Telegraph with a picture with a flight taking off for Rwanda… I’m proud of the British Empire.” “Good girl,” purred a pension-age man in mustard corduroys sat next to me.
Away from the pride, and delight, and dreams, Braverman’s outlook for Britain was bleak. Here was a country where the “PC Brigade” had infiltrated every institution of national life, the schools, the courts, the companies. Here was a country where drug use destroyed lives, where police took the knee, where pronouns proliferated all over emails, where migration was a flood, where men pretend to be women despite having penises, where nonces get more protection from the law than decent, hard working people. The liberal establishment hung over us all, a thickly overgrown canopy, and only Braverman had a machete sharp enough to hack it away. “We simply cannot go on like this.”
But as with every other whinge and complaint at this conference (and they were legion), the instant thought was: isn’t this your mess? Haven’t you been in charge for 12 years? Why should you be trusted to clean it up? Anyway, Braverman had a solution. Build a new Royal Yacht, and smash a bottle of champagne on its pristine hull. The members adored this, and they adored her, just as they had adored Truss last year in Manchester.
And how was the members’ new Prime Minister working out? Well.“This is the Institute for Economic Affairs’ world now,” said one lobbyist. “You’re just living in it.” Rationalise taxation by cutting it. Shrink government budgets. Put a smile on the face of wealth creators. Economic growth at all costs. (“Yeah,” a CCHQ worker told me sarcastically one night, “because we never gave any attention to growth before Truss came in”.)
By Wednesday morning, the situation felt terminal. When Truss brought the curtain down on conference, you could hear the ideological barrel being scraped, perhaps for the final time by this party. Truss described her ideas with simple, repeated words. Growth; delivery. She found her conservatism in the back of a cupboard in Tufton Street. When Truss said she would web Britain with superfast broadband, as Cameron, and May, and Johnson before her had promised, you were left wondering what any of these governments had actually achieved. The “new era” she heralded was making the same promises the others had.
What Truss said hardly mattered. A consensus already enclosed her, as tall and bleak as prison walls. The Prime Minister was a dud and her plan would fail. Her colleagues said this, the press said this, even the members were saying this. The conference’s bitchy, scattergun in-fights were a series of ribbon-cuttings for the next leadership contest.
One night I bumped into Gary Sambrook, MP for Birmingham Northfield. I asked him how he thought it was all going. He looked momentarily stunned. A colleague intervened. “Remember what you said earlier Gary?” He did not seem to remember. “That this is the best conference you’ve ever been to?”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” he said. It would have been cruel to ask him to tell the truth, for it was all around us, and had been for days.