“There is a mood to every conference. You can feel it,” the Labour leader Keir Starmer told his party faithful in Liverpool last week. He is correct. There is something about being trapped behind a police cordon in an airless convention centre that acts as a platform for mass hypnosis. You end up having the same conversation over and again: only the faces change.
In Liverpool last week, the Conversation felt optimistic: Labour could see itself getting near to power, but it has been burned too many times. Nobody seemed willing to trust their own eyes. They couldn’t allow their hearts to be broken again.
This week, in Birmingham, the Conservatives have gathered to hold their own version of the Conversation. Here is how it goes. “How do you think it’s going?” I ask. A look of wild-eyed despair, a gesture of exasperation. “Oh yes, it’s going swimmingly of course. Haven’t you heard? Everything is going extremely well.” Sometimes this is followed by a laugh. Sometimes it is not.
This is, of course, if you can find an MP to speak to. Many have stayed away. The traditional drinks parties that mark the first evening of Tory conference felt different last night. I skimmed the room looking for MPs with whom I could rehearse the Conversation, only to see far fewer than usual. Many supporters of Rishi Sunak have not made the trip, and the same is true of Sunak himself. Last week, an ally told the press that the former chancellor wants to give Liz Truss “all the space she needs to own the moment”. (That has been the second Conversation, by the way: “Did you see the Rishi ally quote?” “Yeah, brutal.”)
Also notable by his absence is Boris Johnson. The spectre of his premiership, and his majority, lingers: an unwelcome guest at every party. “I don’t want to say I told you so,” is the refrain of the Johnsonite faithful. Even those without affection for Johnson will wonder aloud whether it might have been better if he had stayed. Perhaps – and this they whisper – it might be better if he came back?
But how would that work? Therein lies the problem: nobody knows. Most MPs do not see a way out of this hole. For those who do have a silver bullet solution – the return of Boris Johnson, say, or a caretaker PM like Michael Gove or even Theresa May – the details of how this might be achieved are extremely hazy, and they will admit defeat after the mildest logistical question. “Are we really going to say to the public, ‘Sorry, we got it wrong the last four times, but don’t worry, this time we’ve got the right one, I promise’?” one MP asked in despair yesterday.
For a small number of true believers, of course, the faith remains. Truss always knew her plans would create a short-term shock, and when the economy is growing, all of this will be forgotten: in the long run there will be champagne and honey for everyone. Perhaps one day, Tory MPs’ words of woe will seem foolishly naive. Perhaps. But that world seems a long way from this conference centre in Birmingham. It is a long way from the minds of MPs.
Back in the present, the Chancellor has today (3 October) announced a U-turn on the government’s removal of the additional rate of income tax. “We get it, and we have listened,” he wrote in a statement announcing the move. Many in his party do not agree: a consensus is emerging that it was not the policy itself that caused the intense reaction we saw in the financial markets – as ministers have been at pains to point out, the removal of the 45p rate was a small-fry policy, costing only a billion pounds or so. Rather, it was what the policy symbolised that set hares running: “We will do what we want. The rest of you be damned,” was how one unsympathetic MP summed up the message. “The policy said we are incompetent,” another minister said this morning. “So does the U-turn.”
Here in Birmingham, there is a pervading sense that the damage has already been done, but also that the problem cannot be isolated to one or two particular policies. It is intrinsic to the whole political project that the Conservative Party has irrevocably embarked upon. “The whips keep phoning us and asking what we want,” one high-profile Sunak backer told me morosely. “But nobody knows what we want. Holistically it’s just all shit.” There is a mood to every conference. As descriptions of this one go, you could do a lot worse than that.