There is an air of unreality in Manchester at the Conservative Party conference. It starts just as you walk through the front doors of the magnificent Central arena. Emblazoned on this former railway station is the slogan “Taking long-term decisions for a better future”. It feels – to put it mildly – discordant with events inside. The main talking point of the conference so far has been whether or not Sunak’s government will cut a long-term piece of infrastructure (HS2) for the short-term relief of more money to spend elsewhere.
This discordance continues on the conference fringe. Those attracting sell-out crowds are not cabinet ministers, or the could-yet-bes, but the has-beens and down-and-outs. Chief among the latter group is Liz Truss. She attracted a line of activists so long it meandered halfway around the Midland Hotel. She was even spotted signing a copy of her mini-Budget, which brought distress and angst to millions. Wade through the smog of unreality, forget everything you know about the past year and you could just about imagine that she was still prime minister, as if the nightmare never unfolded. Perhaps that’s exactly what she does, each and every day.
Inside that particular fringe (never has the word seemed so apposite), Truss is joined by other ghosts who keep returning: Jacob Rees-Mogg, Priti Patel. This conference is a pop-up book of the Conservative politics of the last decade – it has a Simpsons clip show feel about it. What’s striking is that these critics barely talk of Rishi Sunak, or the current government, the Tories’ present. They’re corralling for the battle to come, freed of the burdens of power and the tedium of trade-offs. They’re preparing accounts of where they went wrong. Go to any event at this conference and there is little pride or sense of achievement after 13 unbroken years in government. These are people who believe they have few achievements in office, searching for an analysis as to why that might be. It is a party yearning for an explanation, or an excuse.
Truss, who thinks of herself as a political teacher, has one available. Watching her at that fringe, with line after line of implicit critiques of the government, my mind was drawn to another conference: Labour’s post-defeat gathering in 1980. On that occasion, Tony Benn took to the podium and listed an array of policies that the Labour governments of the 1970s failed to implement, proving that they weren’t sufficiently socialist. It isn’t hard to imagine Truss, in a year or two, doing the same for her own party and creed. She and others will take to opposition and say that the Tories failed because they were not conservative enough.
[See also: Where does Labour stand on HS2?]
Truss is no Benn, not least because she, unlike him, is a poor debater. She prefers the sanctuary of sympathetic audiences such as GB News. In this sense, she is more akin to Jeremy Corbyn: a preacher rather than a teacher. But the seeds are being sown for the Tory party’s radicalisation in opposition, with Truss at its centre. She has signed and pushed a pledge committing the party to never vote for new tax increases, a hallmark of mid-1990s Republicanism which has led to the repeated US government shutdowns of recent decades. Sunak and other leading Conservative figures will be cast as the guilty men. GB News itself, if still broadcasting, will augment that process. It’s not impossible to imagine Nigel Farage (who is present at the Tory conference) being invited to rejoin the party under the leadership of whoever comes next.
But the truth is, in many ways, this is a party which has been radicalised deeply already. Go to the main auditorium in Manchester, where cabinet ministers deliver speeches sanctioned by No 10, and close your eyes and you could be at a Ukip or Brexit Party conference or, indeed, watching an hour of GB News. Secretaries of state talk in fevered terms about Keir Starmer wanting to ban meat, about “political speed limits”, about the need to protect statues, or about how councils intend to control how often we go to the shops. These offerings were from Claire Coutinho, the Energy Secretary, Lucy Frazer, the Culture Secretary, and Mark Harper, Transport Secretary, three sensible members of the government. Yet they too have succumbed to a way of talking about politics that we’d have quite recently deemed eccentric at best.
Of course, this is partly about dividing lines. It has to be. The Tories languish in the polls and nothing seems to rejuvenate them. After 13 years there are few fresh arguments in the locker; those that were discarded by previous leaders are now resurrected for want of any alternative (this includes HS2 cancellation). But the problem with railing against phantoms is that no one believes they’re there. Few outside of the right-wing corners of the internet are bothered about 15-minute cities, if they’ve heard of them at all. Many people in England are only vaguely aware that there is a Welsh government, let alone that it has introduced a default speed limit of 20mph.
Though net zero contains the potential for a deeply contested politics, this contestation is starting from a low base. There’s been little political debate about the costs of the green transition and so far there is little awareness among the public.
Sunak is inveighing against theoretical or non-existent net-zero policies, while having little to say about the politics of now. That now is characterised by failure on several of his own key targets and a gradual feeling of atrophy and decline around much of what the British state does. Somewhat uncharitably you could say he is a man standing in front of a blazing building asking those inside to worry about the foundations of a house barely built across the street.
Better, perhaps, to be fighting phantoms than each other. But as this surreal gathering continues, expect plenty of both.
[See also: The farce of scrapping the Manchester leg of HS2]