Conferences gather the nation’s political press, senior politicians and corporate elite in a small, fenced-in zone. The Conservative Party’s atmosphere – its gripes, insecurities and factionalism – is therefore magnified. It can lead to narratives about unity and forward momentum (see Labour conference last year). Or it can catalyse a sense that the leadership is caving in (see Conservative conference last year). This year, there is an impression that the Tory party and its leader are not on the same page. You can walk around conference and feel as if you have been transported from one party conference to another, and then another. Rishi Sunak has become the absentee landlord of the Conservative Party.
What might reassure Tory strategists in CCHQ is that few members of the public take notice of such events. There is also optimism among some in CCHQ and in the cabinet that Sunak’s recalculation on net zero targets has led to a bounce in support. Similarly, with so few here, the angst of 200 MPs staring at the polls worried about losing their jobs adds an impetus to conference that is otherwise absent. Nonetheless, the conference’s incoherence is holding the party back.
The Chancellor’s speech yesterday was overshadowed by Liz Truss’s Trumpian Growth Rally across the road in the Midland Hotel. He announced a freeze on civil service hiring and a desire to increase sanctions for those on welfare. It was unclear how his speech cohered with the broader strategy to keep the government in power. Are the Tories fighting the election on welfare now? Hunt praises the uplift to economic growth at the same time that the Prime Minister fuels economic uncertainty through net zero announcements and reportedly scrapping the high-speed rail connection between Birmingham and Manchester.
Although not officially confirmed, this would be one of the largest changes to infrastructure policy in decades. The decision speaks to the policy merry-go-round of recent years and the failure of the British state to complete large projects. The political damage will partly depend on Labour’s response.
The latter will have to decide whether it wants to double-down on levelling up or whether it wants to use the money to fund policies that Rachel Reeves’s fiscal rules have previously shelved. Does it want to create a dividing line with the government – a route that would play into Keir Starmer’s “sticking-plaster politics” narrative – or pocket the cash to meet its fiscal rules? It is hard to see how the opposition would choose to find the billions needed to deliver the project before the next election. Consensus between the two parties could see the issue eventually laid to rest.
Whatever Labour does, Sunak is already facing criticism from his own side. Five hours after Truss’s rally, Andy Street, the West Midlands’ Conservative metro mayor, surrounded by a huddle of journalists and grasping a card with some hastily scrawled notes, bombarded the government for betraying the north and levelling up. He said: “Gripping this situation means re-examining it, it does not mean giving up, admitting defeat you could say, or even, you could say, cancelling the future.” It was a powerful intervention.
Some sneer at the little power that metro mayors have. But they provide an important counter-balance to the Westminster system. They are free from the control of the party whips and can stand up to their leadership in a way that MPs can’t. The intervention from Street, alongside concern among some MPs, makes it even more important for Sunak to tell a story in his speech tomorrow that ties his divided and increasingly incoherent party together.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.
[See also: Where does Labour stand on HS2?]