Around 600 metres from parliament, a room of Conservatives are midway through three days of group therapy. Attendees at this year’s National Conservative conference – which puts the nation-state and sovereignty at the centre of their conservatism – include Jacob Rees-Mogg, Suella Braverman, Michael Gove and the former Brexit negotiator David Frost.
The project – as it relates to the Conservative Party – is riddled with incoherence. There’s a fundamental disagreement between those who want to unleash the free market and those who want a more interventionist state. Rees-Mogg, for instance, wants deregulation and lower taxes, whereas Danny Kruger, another attendee and a former top aide to Boris Johnson, would restrict the market to promote the community.
But this is the least of their worries. In his speech yesterday, 15 May, Kruger railed against the following: paganism, the Bank of England, austerity, open borders, cheap credit, Gnosticism, lockdowns. It reminded me of a recent Reform UK rally, which I sketched over the weekend, where attendees associated finishing Brexit with everything from recycling to Yes Minister. I’m only being partly flippant when I call the “NatCon” conference a group therapy session. The speakers offloaded a deluge of gripes without offering coherent solutions. Even if they did, you don’t hear this list of problems and think, ah yes, the Conservative Party is the answer.
Meanwhile, the conference is dividing the party. One MP from its liberal wing I spoke to beforehand found it distasteful. A minister thought it crazed. A former aide daren’t be seen there. All of which suggests that the Conservative Party doesn’t know what it is.
Neither does it understand its opposition. Strip away the inflammatory jokes about transgender people and the hard-line approach to open borders, and many of the values that Braverman espoused in her speech – optimism, love of country, opportunity – wouldn’t be out of place in a Keir Starmer speech. But Braverman caricatured the left as: “Decolonising the curriculum, demanding reparations, denigrating our heroes, tearing down statues.” That is not Starmer’s Labour Party.
Then there is the electorate. I did not hear the NHS discussed yesterday, let alone a diagnosis of our ailing public services. A lack of consensus over the free market forced the conversation on to cultural issues and preserving the national character. Economics was pushed to the side at a time when the cost-of-living crisis dominates voters’ priorities. It’s hard to care about the degradation of the national character when you can’t afford to pay your bills.
This is a conference for after the next election. A pitch for the heart of the party and, for Braverman, the leadership. Eighteen months out from a general election, Keir Starmer will be pleased.
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