Major players at the Conservative Party conference


Last week was the Conservative Party Conference, CPC23. Or perhaps there were two different conferences:

  • The official conference, run by Sunak’s team, whose objective was to rally the party faithful around the leader in readiness for the next election;
  • The unofficial conference at which the contenders for power and influence sought to lay the ground for their own bids for leadership.

This article briefly covers both conferences and explores what that could mean for Britain.

The Official Conference

For Sunak, the conference was always going to be tricky.

He is the leader of a party which has now been in power for 13 years and whose track record is impossible to defend. The rot which is destroying the fabric of our country is clear to almost everyone: we have a weak economy and an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis; our NHS is struggling badly, and our schools are crumbling. And on the environment, the government has allowed sewage to flow through our rivers and is becoming increasingly hostile to any action that could help tackle climate change.

Everything we care about is going wrong. And the polls reflect that.

So, what could Sunak do? As the Guardian reported before COC23:

“Although the Tories have been in power for more than 13 years, they believe they can portray Sunak as the leader who represents ‘change’ and ‘new thinking’… Their challenge is to disassociate and disconnect Sunak with the 13 years that went before.

And that was clearly the line he took. The BBC interpreted Sunak’s speech as being deliberately divisive both in the wider country and within his own party.

Sunak has pinned the blame for the UK’s problems not on the 13 years of ABCD policies his party – and he himself as Chancellor – introduced, but on an imaginary 30-year political consensus:

“You know what? People are right. Politics doesn’t work the way it should. We’ve had 30 years of a political system which incentivises the easy decision, not the right one, 30 years of vested interest standing in the way of change, 30 years of rhetorical ambition which achieves little more than a short-term headline.”

He even has a new slogan to reflect his ‘new’ approach: “Long-term decisions for a Brighter Future.”

As an example of this new approach, he canned the completion of HS2, a policy commitment supported by many current and former colleagues: David Cameron and Boris Johnson both condemned his decision. So did Andy Street the (Conservative) Mayor of the West Midlands and Andy Burnham, the (Labour) Mayor of Manchester.

Sunak promised that canning HS2 would save £36 billion and that every penny would be spent on “new” schemes. In fact, most of these “new” schemes had already been announced or even completed, like the Manchester Airport metrolink.

On the NHS, Sunak said:

“We Conservatives know that you don’t measure your affection for the NHS just by how much money you put in.”

In fact, all the evidence suggests that the prolonged underfunding of the NHS over the last 13 (not 30) years is the principal cause of today’s waiting lists. A rational policy-maker, taking a long-term view would see proper funding of the NHS as a key priority.

And quite how going back on his party’s commitments to net zero can be presented as getting rid of vested interests and taking long-term decisions for a brighter future is not clear – but it can be effective as a short-term campaigning tactic.

And that really sums up his approach: use the language of long-term responsibility, but focus on short-term divisiveness to polarise the population and shore up the core Conservative vote.

The Unofficial Conference

The unofficial conference was even scarier.

Liz Truss came back to rapturous applause to explain that the only reason that her approach as Prime Minister had failed so dismally was that the left-wing ‘Blob’, which seems to include the Bank of England, the Civil Service generally, the financial markets and most of the Conservative Party, had ganged-up to prevent her from rescuing Britain from its 13-year underperformance. She again called for savage tax cuts. A claimed 60 MPs signed her pledge.

Suella Braverman’s speech was ever-closer to full-blown fascist rhetoric. Matthijs Rooduijn of the University of Amsterdam compared it with the far-right in other European countries:

“This was a populist, radical-right speech like you’d get from Le Pen in France or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, when [they are] badly behind in the polls, in search of a new story. The question now is to what extent the whole party embraces it.”

Kemi Badenoch is apparently the bookies favourite to succeed Sunak; and her speeches were unashamedly populist: “The crowd broke into rapturous applause at mentions of the Labour Party ‘bending the knee’ at an ‘altar of intolerance’ and of the Scottish National Party wanting to let ‘convicted rapists pretend that they were actually women so they could be housed in a women’s prison.’”

Nigel Farage was present and seemingly welcomed by cabinet ministers.

And Penny Mordaunt made an extraordinary speech, which can only have been meant to demonstrate her leadership qualities.

There is clearly no shortage of contenders for next leader of the party, though as we have commented before, all the front-runners are market fundamentalist protégées of Tufton Street ‘think-tanks’. There is no diversity of approach.

What about the one-nation Conservatives? As The Guardian reported:

“The authentic centre-right gathered, beleaguered, in a small room to hear David Gauke talk about his book, The Case for the Centre Right, a collection of essays by one-nation Tories. He was of his party’s right, he says, when first elected – but when the party turned Brexit, the shifting ground beneath his feet landed him on its left. He was expelled, but would rejoin if sanity ever prevailed. Reading these moderate essays and listening to Gauke against the prevailing right-wing tsunami at this conference, that day will be a very long way off.”

It is surely past time for one-nation Conservatives to make more serious effort to regain control of their party in the interests of the country. They have so far looked like boy-scouts fighting against the special forces.

What That May Mean

In such circumstances, prediction becomes impossible: everything depends on the mood of back-bench Conservative MPs. Critical is the level of belief they have in Sunak and in the chances of anyone being able to win the next election for them.

The chart below shows some possible scenarios.

If they are feeling very optimistic, they may stick with Sunak because they think he can win the next election. If they are feeling very pessimistic and believe that whatever happens they will lose the next election, they may see no point in replacing him (and there may be no leader who wants to step in, just to lose the election).

But if the Conservatives are now seeing Sunak as part of the problem, rather than as a solution, they may try a desperate roll of the die to see if a new leader can – with the support of the right-wing media – win during his or her honeymoon period. That is the Replace option.

On the – admittedly shaky – assumption that they go instead with the Refresh option, we can expect to see more campaigning on the basis of fixing made-up problems, like the mythical seven bins and non-existent taxes, rather than tackling the real problems the UK faces as in this recent example.

And more worryingly, pseudo-policies designed to divide the voting population rather than to solve any problems.

In the case of their new environmental policies, these may do long-term damage.

And with Replace, the risk is a lurch even further to the right.

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