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6 October 2023

Fools, frauds and firebrands

At their party conference, the Conservatives were already moving beyond Rishi Sunak.

By Will Lloyd

An honoured figure appears towards the end of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway’s guests are gathering for a party at her home when he arrives. Woolf does not even bother giving him a name. He is just “the Prime Minister” – and he is a piteous figure. You cannot even laugh at him: “He looked so ordinary. You might have stood him behind a counter and bought biscuits – poor chap, all rigged up in gold lace.” The PM does the rounds. He floats through rooms, behaving with an “inexpressible dignity”, “doing his best, and good luck to him, to look important”.

In Manchester, over four punishing Conservative Party conference days, Rishi Sunak did his best to look important. He tried to appear dignified. You could watch him – frozen smile, compact springy frame, four rote words of banter for the boozy faces that pushed towards him all day and every night – doing his prime ministerial duty. Performing, if never quite enjoying the role.

Sunak’s conference programme photograph was more telling than anything he said (every policy in his keynote speech had already been leaked) or anything he did (he participated in many selfies). It showed a spruce little man in business attire in the airport lounge. Brow-furrowed, working through a document, his only friend a can of Sprite. You might have met him at an executive leadership seminar for ambitious middle managers – poor chap, good luck to him.

When he addressed conference on the final day, Sunak began by attacking Westminster business-as-usual. “Politics doesn’t work the way it should,” he said. For 30 years, a uniparty had operated across British government, taking easy decisions rather than making hard choices. Vested interests triumphed again and again over the people’s will. This prime minister would be different: “Our mission is to fundamentally change our country.”

Over the course of the next hour Sunak revealed how bathetic such ambitions were. He would scrap and ban and spike things. He would spend billions on potholes, and force children to study maths. There would be no more cigarettes for teenagers. Much of what Sunak announced will never happen. These were not “fundamental changes”. The policies were irritating snares for the Labour Party; Sunak was a PM digging trenches for a general election. In other words: this was Westminster business-as-usual.

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If there was a fundamental change to be found in Manchester it was within the Conservative Party itself. Sunak and the MPs who remain loyal to him are lonely figures in a rapidly altering landscape. On the fringes of the conference, and in countless conversations with members, it was clear that the party was already thinking past the Prime Minister and his likely defeat in 2024. The future did not belong to Sunak. It belonged to forces and personalities that are his antithesis.

Why did Tom Tugendhat MP look so unhappy? It was 1 October, the Sunday evening at conference. The panel, where the Security Minister was joined by Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, and Nick Timothy, Telegraph columnist and the prospective parliamentary candidate for West Suffolk, was there to discuss “the future of conservatism”.

Nobody mentioned Sunak when they wrestled with the topic, which brooded over the conference for four full days. Tugendhat, a liberal One Nation Tory who stood unsuccessfully for the leadership in 2022, is regarded as a decent, urbane man. He might have been a cabinet minister at any time in the past century for any party. Yet, as the Manchester rain fell gently outside, Tugendhat grimaced. He mentioned an extraordinary recent poll that suggested a mere 1 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds would vote Conservative at the next election. He looked knackered: Dracula pallor, mouth stuck in a permanent upside down U-shape. But you would be unhappy if you were Tom Tugendhat, and you had to think about the future of conservatism.

Outside the conference secure zone, away from the panel discussions, a key part of that future was gathering. The Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO) was holding a black-tie gala dinner at the Kimpton Clocktower Hotel. Established at the end of 2022 as a Boris Johnson memorial fan club, the CDO has mutated into an insurgent force in Conservative politics. Its president, Peter Cruddas, used to be the party treasurer. Cruddas is often described as “richer than Croesus” and though £4.5m from those riches has reportedly been given to the party in the past, on that Sunday it became clear that he was no longer content to be an ATM for Conservative Campaign Headquarters.

During a ten-minute speech that opened the dinner, Cruddas condemned the party as “corrupt and anti-democratic”. He wanted regime change: “Tonight I am asking all Conservative Party donors, including individuals or groups, big or small, to stop funding the Conservative Party until we can implement constitutional changes that reintroduces full [party] members’ rights.” Fifteen Conservative MPs listened to this speech, among them the former home secretary Priti Patel and the deputy party chairman Lee Anderson. To say that their swords flew from their scabbards to defend Sunak would be an overstatement. Sunak cannot depend on loyalty – it was he, many Tories believe, who rid Downing Street of Boris Johnson.
One legacy of that bloodletting may be the rise of the CDO. In Manchester, just as it had been when it held its first gathering earlier this year in Bournemouth, the group became a magnet for what some Tory MPs despairingly describe in private as the “fascist grannies” – the actual membership of the party. They did not spend this conference queuing up for Tom Tugendhat’s events.

[See also: The Conservative Party is disintegrating]

On Monday 2 October, an answer to the “future of conservatism” question began to sketch itself out. I followed a lobby journalist as he did a Westminster power stride – full-legged pace, somehow simultaneously drinking a coffee and checking his Twitter interactions, happy to splinter someone’s face to reach his destination – towards the Trafford Suite of the Midland Hotel.

Liz Truss was due any moment to hold a “rally for growth” in this chintzy old ballroom. All the lordly magnificences of broadcast media were there for it. The BBC’s Chris Mason, never seen without a look of bewilderment, stalked around with a miniature sound boom. There was Global’s Emily Maitlis, battle-ready with two large crystal chandeliers hanging from her ears. GB News’s Nigel Farage smirked from behind a pillar. Photographers prepared their super-lenses for Truss. Members limped into the room after the appalling ordeal of the conference’s sweatiest queue.

She arrived. Another GB News presenter, Liam Halligan, introduced her. It was like Edmund Burke’s remarks about Marie Antoinette in Reflections on the Revolution in France. To Burke, the cake-eating queen had seemed a “morning star, full of life and splendour and joy”. It was much the same for Halligan. He dripped. He lamented. Mud had been thrown at this free-market queen. But she had soldiered on, despite the brickbats. The age of chivalry might be over – yet Truss, unlike Marie Antoinette – had survived its end. The glory of Trussite economics, the glory of growth and heroic enterprise was not extinguished. It was here alive with us in the room. And it told you so much about the modern Conservative Party that Truss could, within a year of tanking the economy, not die from the simple embarrassment of turning up.

She gave her speech. It was pointed, and gratefully received by the room. Truss looked pleased with herself. She claims to have a caucus of 60 Conservative MPs behind her. Afterwards, I heard that she was looking forward to standing for the leadership again, once Sunak has lost.

Nigel Farage was smoking a powerful cigarette in a corner outside the Midland. To describe the suit he was wearing as “blue” would be an understatement. It was the bluest eyeball-bursting blue I have ever seen. This was his first Conservative Party conference for decades. He had not been a member of the party since the early 1990s. He was amused to find himself as the gold medallist in the New Statesman’s recent Right Power List. “I thought it was funny,” he told me.

Funny, yes, but not surprising. “I will say it’s obvious that senior Tories are starting to say the things I have been saying.” Farage was relaxed, well-lunched, with a deep-orange TV tan. His teeth seemed cleaner than those a man with such a fag habit ought to have.

Everywhere at this conference, he was mobbed by party members, who wanted his picture, his handshake, his shoulder to rest their arms across. He has become an avuncular figure to younger Tories and is the kind of politician older Tories enjoyed voting for to spite David Cameron at European elections. They all want to have a pint with Farage, not a Sprite with Sunak. All this despite the former Ukip leader doing more damage to the Tories than anyone in modern times, other than Tony Blair. All this despite him never even becoming an MP. His presence here with GB News invited speculation: does he want to rejoin the party, and complete the slow coup that he has inadvertently mounted since 2010?

Not really. “Do I look like I’m going to go back?” He chuckled. No. His media platform gave him something ideal: power without responsibility. His work – pull Britain out of the EU and pull the Conservative Party membership towards him – was completed years ago.

[See also: The Conservative conference can’t take its eyes off Farage]

The Tories have not had a “normal”, orderly conference for many years. Sunak might be able to torpedo HS2 by decree, but he could not get his party to behave itself. They kept saying things the leadership could not control. Jacob Rees-Mogg declared war on cattle farmers. The London mayoral candidate Susan Hall claimed that Jews were frightened of Sadiq Khan. Lee Anderson insulted the entire city of Bradford. Andy Street, the Tory West Midlands mayor, held an emotional emergency press conference in an attempt to derail the Prime Minister’s HS2 decision.

Kemi Badenoch Freudian-slipped at the Institute for Economic Affairs reception that she was “a minister who does not like government… government waste”. Priti Patel was filmed doing the conga with Farage. They held rallies for new manifestos in an atmosphere of spiteful joviality. Often, with their attacks on the civil service or the woke, they sounded as if they were not in control of anything. Everywhere, you could hear the chattering sound of what Roger Scruton once called “fools, frauds and firebrands”. Above all, they talked as if Sunak did not exist.

The most notable remark was also made by the most popular figure at the conference – Suella Braverman. To hear a cabinet minister employ the phrase “luxury beliefs” was telling. A luxury belief is one held by a member of the liberal elite to burnish their social status. The term was coined by Rob Henderson, a blogger who is obscure to the general public, but very popular among young conservatives in Britain and the US. The youthful right – who likely advise Braverman and Badenoch – does not take inspiration from Benjamin Disraeli or Winston Churchill. It does not pore over biographies of Lord Salisbury, nor does it particularly wish to return Britain – as many leading Brexiteers do – to the heady days of 1987.

Many young Tories look to the US for ideas and rhetoric. They have more in common with Steve Bannon than Stanley Baldwin. This emergent transatlantic intellectual trade in reactionary ideas is reminiscent of the relationship between Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders’s millennial socialist supporters between 2016 and 2019. Another digital rebellion, but on the right, has transformed the Republican Party. If Braverman’s speech was anything to go by, it has finally reached the Conservative front bench too.

This conference felt like a prelude, not for the general election, but for what happens if Labour comes to power. Liberal, broad-church MPs such as Tugendhat are already in despair. They were sharing a clip from The Matrix among themselves on WhatsApp as the conference ground on. In the scene, Agent Smith tells Morpheus: “I hate this place. This zoo, this prison, this reality or whatever you want to call it. I can’t stand it any longer. It’s the smell, if there is such a thing.”

Journalists, too, naively, already describe the party as populist, Trumpist, etc. In truth, right-wingers look at Rishi Sunak and see a technocrat, unable to tackle the small boats issue, stem net migration or relieve a tax burden that has reached a 70-year high. The party has several rotations to move through if it is to become truly populist, truly remade in the image of Farage. Only in opposition, when the choice of leadership is returned to the membership, will that happen. Like Virginia Woolf’s prime minister, that leader does not have a name, not yet. If the Conservative Party seems right-wing now, though, you may be unprepared for what it sounds like at the next conference.

[See also: John Gray: Rishi Sunak is demolishing the centre he once embodied]

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