There were two competing Conservative conferences in Manchester this week. There was the conference that Rishi Sunak wanted to have. This was supposed to be about a serious government being honest about trade-offs, taking long-term decisions and delivering transformative change. Unfortunately for Sunak, this conference only got going as he delivered his leader’s speech and was preceded by days of ministerial evasiveness on HS2. There was finally some substance – on transport, smoking restrictions and education – if not much coherence.
The second conference was the one that much of the membership wanted to have. They wanted a war on the woke, tougher sentences for criminals, a crackdown on immigration and tax cuts. There was not much space for honesty about trade-offs with that agenda. Even so, with the partial exception of tax cuts, Sunak was not going to take them on.
In fairness, not all of the members felt that way. If you knew where to find them (for example, any fringe event promoting the book I co-edited, The Case for the Centre Right), you could hear activists express their concerns about the Conservative Party’s trajectory. But however many copies of the book were sold (quite a few as it happens), they were clearly a minority.
Liz Truss used a packed-out fringe event to argue that she was right all along. The Conservative Democracy Organisation (the Tory version of Momentum) had a well-attended gala dinner. The main auditorium – thinly populated for the speeches of most secretaries of state – filled up for Suella Braverman. Some members presumably attended these events out of curiosity but both Truss and the Home Secretary received warm receptions.
As did Nigel Farage. The Conservative commentator, Tim Montgomerie, posted on X/Twitter that he walked into the conference with Farage who got “quite the reception”. Montgomerie went on to say that he was “convinced party members would choose him as leader if they could”.
There have always been links between the Conservative right and Farage but they were previously rather surreptitious. Now, there is no attempt to conceal them. Association with Farage is viewed by some as a positive advantage. As the song “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” played at a GB News reception, Priti Patel was happy to be seen dancing with the former Ukip leader, with a video (as she would have known) soon appearing on social media.
When Sunak was asked if he would welcome Farage into the Conservative Party (not a question I recall ever being asked of previous Conservative leaders), he raised no objections and spoke of the party being “a very broad church” before moving on to his talking points. (By the way, if Sunak wants to claim that he is doing politics differently, he needs to sound as if he is at least trying to answer reasonable questions, irritating though that can be, and not just delivering his script.)
Farage won’t join the Tories this side of a general election (he does not want to be associated with another parliamentary defeat) but this will not be the last we hear of that question. At the next Conservative leadership election, the candidates will be asked not just whether Farage would be welcomed as a party member but whether he would be permitted to stand as a Tory MP. There is a very good chance that the winning candidate will have said yes. Throw in a convenient by-election and it is perfectly possible that Farage could be a Conservative MP within a couple of years. After that, who knows?
It was not so long ago that committed Brexiteers worried that Farage was so politically toxic that he needed to be marginalised to prevent him contaminating the whole Leave campaign. Douglas Carswell’s defection from the Tories to Ukip in 2014 was in part motivated by a desire to weaken Farage’s influence ahead of the referendum. Now, as the New Statesman has pointed out, Farage is the most influential figure on the right. This week has demonstrated that his influence has the potential to grow yet further.
Once too toxic for the Leave campaign, Farage is no longer too toxic for much of the Conservative Party. Not that he has changed; the Tories have moved towards him. The Trump-loving, Conservative London mayoral candidate, Susan Hall, baselessly suggested that Sadiq Khan made London’s Jewish population feel unsafe. Braverman’s speech was as unashamedly populist as any delivered by a senior minister at a Tory conference. Even sensible cabinet ministers flirted with conspiracy theories.
Where does this leave Sunak? His strategy of holding back what he wanted to say until the end of the conference meant that he was almost absent. But there is something more fundamental at work. It was while attending party conferences in the late 2010s that I began to realise that the Conservative Party was changing and that, for the most part, it was no longer my party. Sunak may be a social conservative who backed Brexit and initially supported Boris Johnson, but this week showed that it is not really his party, either.
[See also: The Tories are driving themselves to distraction]