What is the biggest difference between Labour’s conference and the Conservatives’? At one champagne reception for Conservative Party conference this week, a journalist remarked that one striking divergence is that Labour’s saw party division and disquiet spill out into the open, with politicians and activists from different Labour traditions tearing chunks out of each other in a destructive and never-ending battle over its direction. The Conservatives, on the other hand, are better behaved, “much better at holding the line”, the journalist added, no matter the concerns they may hold privately.
“Hear, hear,” came a cry from the back of the room. It was a prominent member of Boris Johnson’s cabinet.
This, the sheer pragmatism of the Conservative Party, was the biggest lesson to take away from 2021’s conference. Johnson is king: “the boss” – as cabinet members always refer to him – is riding high in the polls as multiple crises unfold, and the only person empowered to have a Trump-style rally in a huge purpose-built auditorium at the conference – with other cabinet ministers restricted to short speeches in a smaller, make-shift space at the edge of the conference centre. Johnson is popular and a winner, and the party is sticking behind him, now certain that he plans to contest the next general election.
But bubbling under the surface, concerns about the party’s direction under Johnson were evident in every direction. Many MPs and members aren’t sure what the Conservatives stand for under Johnson, and those that are more certain are worried that “it’s popular, but it’s not really conservatism”, as one puts it.
There is a palpable unease within the party that the Conservatives are becoming the party of high taxes and high spending. At a fringe event organised by the TaxPayers’ Alliance and Institute for Economic Affairs, MPs Ben Bradley and Brendan Clarke-Smith struggled to defend the unpopular increase in National Insurance, and reiterated their commitment to a small state to warm cheers from the room. Speaking hours after Rishi Sunak’s speech, an attempt to reassure the party faithful that he remains a fiscal conservative despite the spending and taxes necessitated by the pandemic, Bradley, the representative for Mansfield, remarked: “I think Rishi gets it,” and, tellingly: “I think Boris could get it.”
That’s not to mention the unease among the remaining pro-Europeans within the Conservative Party, or the wider feeling that, despite a 76-seat majority, the Johnson government is failing to be as bold or reforming as David Cameron managed in coalition and with his much smaller majority.
But the calculation that MPs and members are unashamed to admit is that they’re sticking with Johnson because he is a winner. Fascinatingly, support for the Prime Minister has never been higher within the party, however shaky the ideological support for the Johnson project might be.