The Emmanuel Centre on Marsham Street, nestled just opposite the Home Office in the heart of Westminster, is no stranger to events aimed at reinvigorating an ailing Conservative Party. A year ago it hosted the launch of the Onward think tank’s “Future of Conservatism” project, starring Michael Gove. Three months later, the international “National Conservatism” conference descended, offering the then home secretary Suella Braverman the perfect platform to kickstart her shadow campaign for the Tory party leadership.
Today the party was being pulled in a different direction, and it was an ex-leader rather than a future hopeful stealing the show. This was the Liz Truss comeback tour, with the launch of yet another movement dedicated to making conservatism popular again.
The great minds behind the Popular Conservatives – or PopCons, as they prefer to be known (no there was no actual popcorn, we asked) – had worked hard to get the whole band back together. Truss was the headline act, supported by a range of familiar faces. Mark Littlewood, mere months ago director of the Institute for Economic Affairs from which Trussism was born, returned to Westminster as the PopCons director. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Truss’s short-lived business secretary, had a prime speaking slot. The front rows of the packed-out hall (standing room only for most hacks) were full of Conservative MPs from another era: Priti Patel, Andrea Jenkyns, Brendan Clarke-Smith, Wendy Morton, Jake Berry. The cast, a Tory party member behind me remarked as we took our seats, was reminiscent of “back when we used to be Conservative”.
Getting in the room where the PopCons were happening had been a challenge in itself. Multiple journalists griped that they had been left off the list – some had decided to go along anyway and hang around outside, where Westminster’s perpetual anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray had brought his loudest speakers. Security was fiercer than at any of the party conferences. One dour security guard confiscated my plastic comb (perhaps he was worried it could be used to tame Boris Johnson’s hair, should he have turned up); I nudged past a radio journalist who’d arranged a post-conference interview desperately trying to convince another to let her take her microphone into the hall.
Littlewood took to the stage, the PopCon banners behind him dwarfed by the Bible quote etched into the wall of the hall itself: “My little children let us not love in word neither in tongue but in deed and truth”. At the start of an election year in which the Conservative poll numbers remain stubbornly on the floor, Littlewood, who assured the audience he was “boundlessly optimistic”, was quick to challenge preconceptions. “The new movement isn’t about who leads the Conservatives,” he stressed. Rishi Sunak will be relieved.
Nor are the PopCons to be considered a sixth mafia-style “family” on the right of the Tory party. No, Popular Conservatism is about something far bigger. It was, Littlewood stressed, about fighting the system, the institutions, the “quangocracy” that have led Conservative politics down the path of “leftist groupthink”.
This existential fight against the system was the common thread drawing together the rest of the speeches, which otherwise varied dramatically in subject and tone. Jacob Rees-Mogg began with a quote in French and ended by invoking Tony Benn and promising to discuss the etymology of the Old English word “man” some other time. In between, he railed against Tony Blair taking the judiciary out of parliament and declared that power must be restored from the collective to the individual. (His Tory colleagues who spoke so eloquently at the National Conservatism conference might disagree.) “The Age of Davos Man is over,” Rees-Mogg proclaimed, earning him the first spontaneous round of applause of the day.
The prospective parliamentary candidate for Chris Grayling’s seat of Epsom and Ewell, Mhairi Fraser, got the second. Her speech about the evils of the Nanny State (“The state is no Mary Poppins”) touched on tobacco, alcohol and sugar regulations, but the ovation came when she came to Covid lockdowns, described as the “nanny state in her most monstrous form”. Then Lee Anderson, a latecomer to the Truss party but now a leading figure of the Tory right, went in hard on net zero. He got his ovation for the suggestion that consumers should be allowed to “opt in or out” of the green levies on their energy bills.
Truss herself was something of an anti-climax. Dressed in evangelical white trousers and blouse with a jacket of suffragette-purple, she looked the part of saviour-across-the-water. (She is, of course, due to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference, aka CPAC, in Washington DC later this month.) Having spent a year working on her intonation and determined to impress by speaking without notes, more than once she lost her train of argument – and as she stared blankly into the room, the audience caught a glimpse of that panicked expression impossible not to associate with the words “pork markets”.
Truss got the biggest laugh when she derided her Westminster colleagues for indulging in progressive causes like net zero and LGBT rights because they want to be popular at London dinner parties, saying this wasn’t an issue for her because “I never get invited to dinner parties”. It was an odd thing to admit, at the launch of a movement that has “popular” in the name.
As for the substance, the PopCon narrative has been set. The downfall of the Truss government and the failures of Conservatives over the past 14 years are not to be blamed on any of the people involved, but on the system. The civil service, the judiciary, NGOs, international organisations, charities, civil society – all have been “actively working against” Conservative leaders trying to pursue Conservative policies. The PopCon mission is to smash the system – starting with the fire regulations, Littlewood joked, given how many people had been crammed into the room.
While Littlewood made his closing remarks and the background music struck up again (a jazz rendition of “Maria” from West Side Story), there was a mad scramble: Truss fans to the front to mob the former PM for selfies, everyone else to the cloakroom where we had been forced to relinquish our bags even after they had been de-combed. But the biggest crowd surrounded Nigel Farage, there in his GB News capacity rather than as a Conservative, yet still catnip to Tory party members. A month ago his Reform party launched its own set of missions – missions that look suspiciously similar to the “what we stand for” bullet points on the Union-Jack-themed leaflets handed out to PopCon attendees.
If this is the path the Conservative Party chooses to go down, it has competition.