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  1. Diary
29 September 2023

Preparing for a fight at Tory conference

Also this week: getting lost in Westminster and teenage regressions.

By Rachel Cunliffe

’Tis the week before Conservative Party conference, and the mood among my Tory contacts is mixed. “It’s somehow acquired a crushing inevitability – and the more we can’t shift the polls, the wilder our policy offering is getting,” one texts me, as Rishi Sunak announces an overhaul of the British education system just days after rolling back net-zero measures. There’s the usual frenzy to secure invitations to the most popular parties, but the vibe this year feels slightly off. Not so much last days of Rome as drink-the-bar-dry on the Titanic.

“Mad and grim,” laments a lifelong Conservative, who used to advise a current cabinet minister, when I ask what he thinks the atmosphere will be like. “Lots of reality-denying loons, the sense that the rest of the world is moving away from the party.”

Not everyone is so pessimistic. “This could be the first really interesting Tory conference in a while,” says one regular attendee. “Last year was absolutely dire – a mourning of Truss. 2021 was just a Boris celebration. There’s actually a reason to go this time.” The reason, of course, being that this is where the battle over the party’s soul will be played out. While Sunak will be bobbing between rival factions – attempting to appeal to Thatcherites, Red Wallers, New Conservatives and what’s left of the One Nation caucus – the real drama will be far away from the main stage. Liz Truss and Nadine Dorries (who both have tell-all books coming out shortly) are rumoured to be speaking at fringe events, and Boris Johnson might even make an appearance. Everyone I speak to is expecting one thing: trouble.

Personally, I’m excited about heading to Manchester for my first Conservative Party conference since Covid. I’ve got a good record for bumping into future leaders: a few years ago I met first Sunak (we were on a panel together – he was the only speaker who prepared and showed up the rest of us slackers) and then Truss (at a party – she was more than a little manic but seemed pleased to be complimented her on her gloriously orange trousers). I wonder if I’ll get any good anecdotes about whoever the next leader turns out to be. And if not, there’s always karaoke with Michael Gove.

[See also: Labour shouldn’t hope that the Tories lurch further right]

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Which way to Westminster?

I knew parliament was a maze, having been there for events and to visit MPs. But still I am not prepared for the sheer disorientating panic of turning up with my lobby pass for the first time, making it through security on my own, then being left to fend for myself in a sprawling complex of more than a thousand rooms, hidden staircases, secret passageways and dubious health and safety standards. Stupidly, I ask one of the security guards if there is a map. I can still hear the laughter.

I eventually find my designated desk on the attic corridor inhabited by lobby journalists. The next day, I discover the Post Office and – purely by accident – a hair salon in the basement. On day three, a friend who’s worked in parliament for years takes pity on me and shows me the way to the famous Strangers’ Bar where MPs hang out deep into the night when there are late votes. “That’s where I used to get groped when I first started out here,” he says casually as we walk past. Sorry, what?

A plague on all our houses

A few days later, I’m booked to go on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4 to discuss Pestminster and whether the culture in politics has changed in the six years since the first wave of reports of sexual misconduct by MPs. The team want to know: what can be done to fix institutions that protect and enable influential, high-status men to get away with such shocking abuses of power? But then the segment is cancelled – the Russell Brand allegations have just broken. It’s understandable; it’s a huge story and much more timely than Pestminster. But it is somewhat ironic to have a discussion on sexual predators in one workplace postponed because of another industry’s toxic culture.

Time travelling

It has been four weeks since my parents very kindly welcomed me, my husband and our cat into their home. We’ve moved – or we will be moving, once the “project” house (as my husband euphemistically calls it) we’ve bought is structurally safe. In the meantime, I am back in my childhood bedroom, trying in vain to persuade my mother that, at age 32, I can do my own laundry. It is reminding me how fortunate I am to have family close by, but it is also driving me up the wall, as I feel myself steadily regressing towards teenagerhood. Ah well. The cat is having a marvellous time.

[See also: Ministers are on resignation watch as Rishi goes rogue]

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