The beginning of the end?
Reflections on Conservative Party Conference 2022
By Alex Tiley
Crisis, what crisis?
When asked by a young student journalist whether the Conservative MPs actively briefing against Liz Truss and her Government were traitors plotting a coup, it was remarked by someone very close to the previous Prime Minister Boris Johnson that she was “one of them”. The Home Secretary agrees that there is an attempted “coup” in the works.
By day 2 of the Conference, The Treasury U turns, and MPs on panels openly disagreeing with the Government’s position on increasing universal credit in line with wages instead of inflation, likely due to their never-quite-put-to-bed leadership aspirations. Throughout the week, Conservative conference simmered along with a discomfort only magnified by the heat of the glass roofed greenhouse of the convention centre in Birmingham. Outside, furious protestors heckle and scream at every lobbyist, journalist, and party member that attempts to traverse the gauntlet to the entrance; branding you “Tory scum”, while professional pro EU heckler, Steve Bray, blasts his latest remix of the Spitting Image Chicken Song, from his boombox that features the line “hold a chicken in the air, stick this Truss in Number 10.” The adjective “febrile” has been thrown around a lot recently regarding the Conservative party in the media, but it has accuracy.
A civil war of three armies
The party stands starkly divided in three camps. Those that still back Boris and the political direction of his government; those, predominantly in the rank-and-file members who voted for Truss, and, of course, the backbench caucus of Sunak supporters who likely would see the new Prime Minister dethroned as soon as possible.
The Boris Bomb-throwers
The Johnsonian caucus will go to great lengths to tell you how the atmosphere of the conference is low energy and down. They will tell you that the Government as diverged from the “people's priorities” and that the tax-rising redistributionist gait of the Conservative Party under Boris must be returned to in order to retain the red-now-blue wall at the next General Election. If they are not members, they will tell you that they do not see any reason to vote Conservative. They tell you that this administration holds no mandate for their current ‘growth, growth, growth’ plans. Former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries suggests that a divergence from until recent party ideology and policy would require a general election to be called (presumably confident of receipt of a peerage).
The Rishi Rebels
The Rishi voters, many by their own admission, voted for Rishi because they did not want to vote for Liz and are openly mutinous. They will tell you that the party faces electoral oblivion and have no qualms about pinning the woeful position in the polls squarely on Liz and her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng. Both they and the Johnsonian’s have one thing in common: they will both go to lengths to break rank with the policies of the government, although they define themselves in opposition rather with any other policy platform.
The Truss Terminators
Composed predominantly of the rank and file of the membership, they are, quietly (and often after a few glasses of lukewarm wine, not quietly) angry. They are irritable with the government for U-turning and making itself look weak; frustrated that this will make Rishi and Boris backers smell blood; seething at those who would seek to derail the government’s agenda so quickly when “this is the first time in years the party has had direction or actually behaved like Conservatives.”
A self-fulfilling prophecy?
Of course, going around telling people that everything feels depressing is likely to drag the mood down. Trying to destabilise the government and briefing the media to do so, feeds a narrative of dissent, and frothing with rage at the detractors makes the moniker of being fanatics stick. Meanwhile, Labour consolidates its poll lead. While normally good at unifying to keep access to power, the Conservative party seems to have forgotten that.
A fringe by CapX and the Centre for Policy studies considers if the Conservatives can win the next General Election. Rachel Wolf of Public First says that a shift away from the 2019 policy platform spells issues for the party’s electability. Both her and James Johnson don’t see a victory for the Conservatives on the cards. Meanwhile, Frank Luntz, American communications consultant and pollster says that the public considers many of the Conservatives to be weird and even singles out an audience member as a case in point.
The Chancellor Speaks
In his address to the Conference floor, Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng holds the line with the remaining elements of the growth plan. He has the unenviable position of giving his speech on the day the news breaks of the government U-turn on the 45% tax threshold. His reception is muted from the Conference floor, but there aren’t many that criticise the fiscal plans that remain from the government. He tells the membership, the media, and the markets “we get it” and “we have listened”.
The Prime Minister Moves on up
Closing the Conference, the Prime Minister draws her battle lines against the “anti-growth coalition”. The hall rallies around her after a Greenpeace protest. It’s suggested that this is a good line of attack against Labour, and Truss pledges to go for growth above all else, even if this makes her a disruptor. Conference closes more unified than it may otherwise have been. Stronger party discipline, and a more concerted effort to secure buy in from the backbenches are the plat-du-jour for the leadership now. Whether it is too late, both for the direction of the party or its position with the public, remains to be seen. All eyes return to Westminster and the two-thirds of MPs that didn’t attend Conservative party conference. The Westminster bubble can hardly wait.