This lunchtime I would estimate that the temperature in the Churchill War Rooms, where Tories were gathering for the relaunch of Conservative Way Forward, but were actually there to watch several leadership contenders make stump speeches, was 27 million degrees. About the same as the sun’s core.
It was hot. It was so hot that Nadhim Zahawi’s head shone like a new lightbulb. It was so hot that I was worried Mark Francois would overheat, tremble, and simply explode in a pink sleet of scalding blood and shardy bone, taking an entire generation of Tory think-tankers with him. It was so hot that all the present Tories looked like they were hallucinating. The same thing: Margaret Thatcher. She was in the room. A living presence.
Conservative members have (incredibly) enjoyed the last three years less than the general public. Do they want to level up, expand the state and summon its interventionist powers, raise taxes? Well. Would Margaret Thatcher? The priority is to take us into the future by going back to the past. It’s Thatcher or quits.
So the MPs trudged into the sauna-bunker, pestered by Beth Rigby. “It’s getting nasty isn’t it Mark?” she shouted after Francois, who snorted. Below, a journalist tells me she was eating lobster at the weekend. It’s what everybody in the looks like. The competition for sweatiest man in here is a brutal free-for-all. Anybody could win.
This is, said Steve Baker, “literally the hottest event in Westminster.” Speeches are made. Pledges follow them, like tails. Nadhim Zahawi (13 MPs) is going to get hacking away — he will lower the base rate of income tax to 19p next year and 18p the year after; some VAT will be vaporised; he will reverse the corporation tax hike. He praised Rishi Sunak. When Rishi rolled out furlough the public understood it, because a free lunch is always comprehensible. Now, the new Chancellor said sadly, nobody “understands our plan”. So he will cut taxes, and free lunches will fall from the sky. And under Zahawi there will be freedom. To buy petrol. To buy “chocolate bars”.
Suella Braverman (11 MPs) told the melting candles in the crowd that they shouldn’t vote for her because she’s brown. “Vote for me because I love this country and I’m a conservative”. Freedom is the product of a smaller state, lower taxes, and money in people’s back pockets.
She was a better speaker than Zahawi, but no poet. I think of Churchill’s description of Tory democracy, a society “in which there should be no limit to which any man might rise, but a limit beneath which no man might fall”. Braverman is more interested in Thatcherite cuts than Churchillian limits. So are the rest of them.
The sun was burning in the room. And the sun that burns above the Conservative party, still, is not Churchill or Johnson — it’s Margaret Thatcher. It’s a shame for them they can’t seance her back into Westminster. On this evidence, no one else matches up.