The Prime Minister must inject coherence into this incoherent Conservative Party conference. He must set out a vision for the next five to ten years that goes beyond diluting current ambitions. Despite the speeches against the civil service, migrants, wokists and those on welfare from cabinet ministers at the conference so far, sources insist the emphasis remains on the long term. Rishi Sunak will have to distance himself from the past 13 years to present himself as a fresh choice, in the way Boris Johnson did in 2019. “Change, change, change,” was how one senior source described the strategy to me last night.
Sunak will find that strategy difficult to carry out because he is constrained by his party. The atmosphere here is not funereal, as many keep saying. It is not a wake. It is a christening. There is an energy and vitality among the various factions. Suella Braverman’s speech yesterday (3 October) was a well-put-together deride against those middle-class progressives insulated from the consequences of their “luxury beliefs”. The crowd cooed over Braverman. The direction in which she would take the party is increasingly clear. She has pitched herself as a straight-talking, provocative, woke-buster who defends the country against a “hurricane” of migration. Her position on the cost-of-living crisis, regional development and economic growth is less clear.
Braverman’s ode to free speech was undermined when security removed the Conservative London Assembly member Andrew Boff from the hall. I was stood next to him. He barely muttered, let alone heckled the speaker. For some reason, the police took it upon themselves to eject him. While he was bundled out of the hall, the Home Secretary was calling for the police to focus on solving real crime.
This was only one reason why the atmosphere at conference became slightly uncontrolled yesterday. The hardcore language about immigration or wokery is not new. But the co-option of the language of conspiracy theories is. Nigel Farage hangs over the party. Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, decried the imposition of 15-minute cities and “the idea that local councils can decide how often you go to the shops”. Danny Kruger MP spoke yesterday about resisting “a world government”. The flirtation with conspiracy theories reveals the extent to which parts of the Conservative Party have been infiltrated by ideas that were until recently consigned to its fringe.
One minister I spoke to was genuinely considering joining Labour, so disappointed were they with the party’s direction. Frustration is growing. All eyes will be on Andy Street’s reaction to the Prime Minister’s reported plans to scrap HS2. But, unless Labour decides to fight an election on this issue, expect it to fade away.
Whatever happens to HS2, Rishi Sunak today faces one of the most important moments of his political career so far.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.