The chaotic gathering, independent of the Conservatives but taking place while the party tries to stabilise itself after disastrous local elections, has been a headache, or rather a migraine, for Rishi Sunak. The line-up has been full of deeply conservative thinkers and would-be influencers, and has exposed the governing party’s ideological and cultural divisions.
Where many speakers openly voiced disappointment about the Tories’ standing, some appeared with apparent permission from Sunak’s own government to defend its track record and try to win back support. If the Prime Minister was hoping for that from Anderson, he may feel somewhat disappointed.
Giving the concluding speech of the conference, “Restoring the Realignment”, Anderson was on his usual form. He described his journey from Labour councillor in a working-class Nottinghamshire town to Conservative MP in the space of 18 months, and treated his audience to a reflection on where his party should go next.
Anderson likes to see himself as an asset to the Conservatives’ pitch to Red Wall voters. But his speech yesterday revealed a man resigned to the party’s destruction. References to his position were couched in snarky jokes and dismissive comments. Acknowledging his deputy chairmanship he added, “I don’t know for how long”, and drew attention to internal divides by telling the crowd: “I don’t agree with all my colleagues and they certainly don’t agree with me.”
In presenting his thesis – that the Conservatives should realign around aspiration – he offered little in defence of the government’s track record. Instead he pined for a party that no longer exists and the heyday of his aspirational conservatism. He recounted a “powerful” conversation he had on the Labour campaign trail in 2017 with a man who had decided to vote Conservative after Margaret Thatcher introduced Right to Buy and an appealing view of meritocracy. Anderson reflected: “As a Conservative [Thatcher] came along and she offered a family, thousands of families, across the country, something that they never dreamed they could have. And it wasn’t a handout. It was a reward.”
But the example he’d used – home ownership – seemed startlingly ironic when the Conservative Party is at loggerheads over the idea that much house-building can or even should take place, with many of Anderson’s colleagues staunchly opposed to such a pursuit in their own backyard. He said he “strongly believed” that people across the country could realise their ambitions, but cited no successes in the government’s levelling-up agenda, and no vision for engaging communities hit hard by austerity in recent years. He spoke in platitudes about British pride and opportunity, said that he wanted a party that provides “an opportunity and a society where anyone in this country can get on”, but made no mention of tackling any of the significant problems facing the country, such as the cost-of-living crisis or the huge financial barriers to home ownership. He couldn’t pretend that his party was offering what he was selling.
This was not a man making the case for the support of the crowd but instead, and perhaps inevitably given the party’s increasingly dire poll ratings, negotiating its defeat at the next election, and looking to see what could rise from the embers. Anderson was either unable or reluctant to mount a campaign for the immediate task of building a winning coalition. What was clear from this final, and somewhat sobering, address after the years of Brexit chaos was that even those thoroughly embedded in the fabric of the party have given up hope of pulling it back to the centre.
[See also: The Tories are falling into incoherence]