Members matter little here at Tory conference in Manchester. Many MPs don’t come. Backbenchers who do often only stay for a couple days, wary of the cost. This is an event for corporates to mingle with ministers. And more importantly, for cabinet members to put themselves in the headlines and pitch for the top job.
There are two main factions competing through the fringe events (the third grouping, the liberal conservatives, remain quiet). The most trouble-making will host a rally today in the Trafford Suite of the Midland Hotel. Liz Truss – alongside Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Ranil Jayawardena – will call for the government to cut corporation tax to 19 per cent and start fracking shale gas. These are the libertarian free-marketeers. They are unfazed following Truss’s swift ejection from office. As her election showed, they retain support among the membership – which could be the deciding factor in any future leadership challenge.
The other faction is more disparate. In the tent of the think tank Onward yesterday, Michael Gove and Nick Timothy – Theresa May’s former chief of staff who is now standing for election – gathered with others to discuss the future of Conservatism. Danny Kruger – who was sitting in the front row – will help launch the New Conservative manifesto later today. They combine cultural conservatism and a belief in community with a scepticism towards the excesses of the free market. Gove has gone on a journey, from raging Thatcherite Times columnist, to a Cameron acolyte, to someone who flirts with wealth taxes and thinks Thatcherism isn’t the answer to today’s problems. They look longingly to the themes of the 2019 election.
When I asked the panel which part of the manifesto Rishi Sunak best represents, the answers were telling. Timothy, suppressing a smile, said he thought Sunak embodies the 2019 spirit more than people think. “He cut foreign aid spending and threw it at the NHS,” Timothy said. Gove pointed to the parts he himself still needs to deliver, including the renters’ reform bill. For Tom Tugendhat MP, Sunak represented the “drive and energy” of the manifesto. The answers were divergent and unconvincing. Sunak does not believe in Boris Johnson’s attempt to undo austerity. He does not fit easily into this tribe.
Instead, Sunak is a one-man faction. There are loyalists in the party, those convinced of his intellect and governing acumen. But he is without an ideological bloc. As I pointed out in a piece last week about the personalities in No 10, his operation is full of contradictory versions of conservatism. The Prime Minister is too hard on immigration for the liberal conservatives. Too fiscally conservative for the Reaganite free marketeers. And too free marketeer for the National Conservatives. He is left advocating a mash-up policy mix, veering from maths education to supporting motorists, while the ideological debates within the party happen around him.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.
[See also: The national treasure recession]