Conservative Party conference has barely started but it feels like the hangover has already begun. When No 10 decided to press on with this year’s gathering after the mourning period for the Queen, it was expected to be an extended victory lap for the new prime minister. Instead, I arrived in Birmingham to find a post-mortem on her first 30 days. The party of free markets has been clobbered by the invisible hand, and the polls have bombed instead of bounced on the arrival of a new leader. This was not in the script.
For all the loose talk, the vibe among MPs is not conspiratorial – yet. But everyone is on edge. A former minister whispers that it is the worst atmosphere he has experienced in 36 years of attending conference, which presumably includes the year Iain Duncan Smith “turned up the volume” and turned off the electorate. In truth, it’s a miracle that the former minister is even here. At least half the parliamentary party looks to have stayed away, on strike, like the RMT workers who forced ministers on to cramped rail replacement bus services over the weekend the conference began.
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Every backbencher I have spoken to wanted the government to abandon its plans to abolish the 45p rate of income tax, and several were willing to lose the whip to ensure it. There was an obvious risk of government defeat in the finance bill, a de facto confidence motion, so the U-turn was inevitable and the Chancellor deserves credit for correcting his error swiftly. But in backing down, the government has revealed weakness that will make its supply-side reforms – and possibly other mini-Budget measures – more difficult to pass. It’s an almighty – and entirely self-inflicted – mess.
We’re running a real nation
Among those who forced the Chancellor to pirouette on the 45p tax rate was Michael Gove, whom I interviewed at an Onward event on 2 October. With other big beasts such as Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak at home, the former levelling-up secretary is the pick of the fringe, with a queue snaking around the conference hall. Next year we will book a bigger room.
In his inimitable style, Gove proved why every prime minister since David Cameron has chosen to make use of his talents on the front bench rather than let them loose behind. Likening the intellectual debate within the Conservative Party to the battles between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton after the American Revolution, he declared himself a Hamiltonian – quite the statement in Liz Truss’s Conservative Party.
Hamilton believed in strong national government and trade barriers to protect American industry, and ruthlessly attacked the “unsound and dangerous” philosophy of Jeffersonian individualism. More notably, Hamilton broke with Jefferson’s Republicans in 1789 to found a new party, the Federalists, that dominated American politics for the subsequent decade. If Gove’s reference was a veiled threat, it worked. Just 12 hours later the government changed tack.
Local levelling up
The RMT’s rail strikes forced me to travel to Birmingham by car. This deprived me of the pleasure of New Street station, but reminds me of the vandalism inflicted on Birmingham by car-obsessed city planners in the 1950s and 1960s. We whizzed into the city centre in no time but the six-lane motorway scythes through what were once – and should still be – thriving business districts and vibrant residential communities. If only Jane Jacobs, the urbanist who stopped Robert Moses from paving over Greenwich Village with the Lower Manhattan Expressway, had been a Brummie.
Luckily, the city’s 21st-century leaders are more enlightened. Some years ago, Andy Street, the mayor of the West Midlands, negotiated a deal with the Treasury to keep a share of business rates, which he then reinvested in city centre redevelopment. The result is the redesigned Centenary Square and modern offices housing HSBC and others. Proof, if it were needed, that levelling up is possible with local leadership and a government willing to let go.
I may be the only person who has come to party conference hoping to get some sleep. My son is 16 months old and still wakes in the night, which means I invariably get kicked out of bed and into the spare room at 3am. The prospect of an unbroken night’s sleep is enough to dispatch me from the bar before midnight.
The only problem is my body is so conditioned to interrupted nights that I wake up involuntarily and lie there in my hotel room unable to fall asleep. I might as well have stayed out singing karaoke with the Deputy Prime Minister like nearly everyone else.
Will Tanner is director of the think tank Onward
This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!