Conservative Party conference is an ill-fitting name. Visitors (it would be charitable to call them delegates) gather once a year not to debate motions or wrangle over the rules, but to listen in rapt attention to the parade of party notables. It is the very antithesis of democratic discussion and debate, no wonder there are those on the right of the Labour Party who see a model to be emulated. As a stage-managed affair, every bit of this conference is choreographed and planned out in advance. The audience, which dwindles year on year, takes its seats and is entertained by some of the worst stand-up routines to ever see a stage.
This year, however, there was something different about Tory conference. The government is feeling bullish and put on a display to match. The realities of what they’re doing to the country were, for the most part, forbidden to intrude. Upbeat and smiley, the positive vibes that the government’s leading figures desperately gave off were acts of concealment – an attempt at framing criticism as the product of ‘doomsters’ and ‘gloomsters’ talking Britain down.
Universal Credit cuts were absent. National Insurance increases, the end of furlough, fuel and food shortages, and rising energy bills were banished from the conference hall too. This was Britain of the Blue Jerusalem, a permanently sunny land where the shadows of the real are chased away by the golden orb of the Prime Minister’s mop top.
Liz Truss’s speech on the Sunday set the tone for a cynical jamboree. Far from being forced to front up the foreign policy humiliation of the government’s Afghan debacle, you could be forgiven for thinking it never happened. She sketched out the bare bones of an imaginary ‘network of liberty’, featuring the G7, NATO, former Soviet states, and Gulf sheikdoms. From here, the newly-minted Foreign Secretary painted a vision of a vibrant Britain supplying nuclear submarines to Australia, planning closer military ties with Japan, and boasting of its hard power with a new carrier attack group.
The Great Libertarian Hope’s time on the podium promised more trade deals, more jobs, and more freedom. And because this was a would-be leader’s speech as opposed to a Foreign Secretary’s address, Truss returned to the theme of the war on woke and cancel culture at home, wrapping up with ‘I believe that Britain’s best days are ahead of us,’ a line nabbed straight from Tony Blair’s greatest hits.
Rishi Sunak followed in the same vein, strolling up to the lectern like a naff but inexplicably popular rock star. He struck the same breathlessly positive tone as Truss, but this time with forced Silicon Valley optimism about the economic promise of the internet and advanced technology. So bereft of imagination are the Tories that even their vision of a high-tech futures are tinged with nostalgia.
There were the lines about levelling up – of the high-waged, high-skilled jobs the British people deserved. And then there was the ubiquitous but entirely misleading claim about rising average wages. Better off workers have kept their jobs, it’s true, but the low-paid have lost livelihoods by the hundreds of thousands. This is a substantial reason why figures appear to show pay packets booming. Unlike Truss however, he did make a concession to reality. Alluding to the Universal Credit cut, he said
You’re a young family. You work hard saving a bit each month. But it’s tough. You have ambitions for your careers … for your children. You want to give them the best more than you had. Now you tell me: Is the answer to their hopes and dreams just to increase their benefits? Is the answer to tell that young family the economic system is rigged against you and the only way you stand a chance is to lean ever more on the state?
Only someone utterly dripping in Tory dishonesty and totally distanced from the consequences of his policies could frame the removal of £20 per week from the nation’s poorest as a plus for aspiration and go-getting. Sunak’s was, by far, the worst speech of Tory conference precisely because of this gleeful spin: a heartless attack on the hungry by the husband of a billionaire.
Priti Patel’s Home Secretary speech was always going to pose problems for the happy vibes of this year’s conference. Patel is widely seen as the hard woman of the Tory cabinet. She has posed as the grinding mill of state repression, the copper’s friend, and smiter of anyone seeking refuge on these shores. A rictus grin and bouncy delivery was never going to work, so instead she gave the speech she gives every year.
Protesting lefties need a good hiding, so Patel is handing over extra powers to the police. Criminals need deterring, hence a promise of even tougher sentencing for violent offenders. And bogus asylum seekers should be turned away. Patel even argued that anyone who has risked life and limb crossing continents to get to Britain is automatically an ‘economic migrant.’ The deserving are those sitting in poorly resourced refugee camps waiting for the lottery of UK beneficence, it seems. For the daughter of refugees to push this rhetoric is, frankly, grotesque.
This was followed by what could unfortunately be described as the climax: Boris Johnson’s speech. After half a week of muted criticisms of Labour, the Prime Minister attacked Keir Starmer as a weathervane – someone who flip flopped from point-scoring over Covid restrictions to backing the government when it suited. It is a criticism that, unusually for Johnson, has all too much substance.
Then, in case any conference visitor had failed to notice, Johnson spelled out the purpose for his optimism. With Starmer keen to establish himself as a serious figure, the Prime Minister wants to contrast Labour’s dour negativity with the his ebullience. And, in the absence of any distinctive vision or policy contrasts from the Opposition, it appears to be working.
This vacuum on Labour’s side was, in truth, a godsend. After Starmer’s ‘90 minutes of nothing,’ Johnson was more than capable of 45 minutes of the same. There were no new announcements, just the ritual incantation of levelling up and redistributing opportunity. And the severe problems hitting the economy? They are, apparently, symptoms of success. Shortages would not be happening if Britain’s economy was not roaring back. Surely no one in the hall believed this, no matter how much they wanted to. But it didn’t really matter.
For all its awkward pizzazz and exuberance, there was one key message from Tory conference this year: this is not a party afraid of their opponents. After 18 months of haphazard managerial criticisms capped by Labour’s torrid conference and the completely unnecessary attacks Keir Starmer and his right-wing helpers launched on the left, the Tories feel confident that Starmer is not a contender for power.
Even if the open goalmouth is advertised with flashing lights and policy failures almost too numerous to count, Labour is unlikely to take the shot. As a result, the Tories clearly fancy their chances in two years’ time. On the evidence of the past couple of weeks, it is difficult to say they are wrong.