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In the Heart of the Tory Identity Crisis

Conservative Conference 2022 has been a heady mix of blue-on-blue attacks, naff merch and sadness. But it's made one thing clear: when it comes to successfully functioning as the party of the ruling elite, they're having serious trouble.

Attendees sleep as British Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Chloe Smith speaks with Valiant Lingerie founder Eleanor Howie on day two of the annual Conservative Party conference on 3 October 2022 in Birmingham, England. (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images)

As at any big public event—with some 12,000 people decamping to Birmingham to wallow for four days in every flavour of conservatism—from the big stage to the side acts, breakfast meetings to late night parties, Tory conference has plenty of ‘merch’ on offer.

But the U-turns make the tat look sad. Do delegates want an ‘In Liz We Truss’ travel coffee cup? Buying it just a few days after she reversed a flagship policy is just advertising to fellow commuters you are easily fooled.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance dished out free sunglasses and lighters (with built-in bottle openers) carrying their logo, assumedly meant to make them look like the bad boys of conservatism. The shades might now be useful to hide the tears as the leader closest to their politics stumbles. Never mind lads. Spark up a consolation fag.

Tory think-tank the Centre for Policy Studies offers delegates a life-size cardboard cut-out of Thatcher, for selfies. Unfortunately, the party has also elected a life-size cardboard cut-out of Margaret Thatcher as leader, and Truss’s failing two-dimensional imitation of their idol rather takes the shine of their gimmick.

Along with the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), the Taxpayers’ Alliance has been on a long march through Tory institutions. The two offer the crudest ‘Free Market’ slash-and-burn politics. From 2008 to 2014 they were exiled from the centre of Tory power, which meant that during Tory conferences they held meetings at the ‘Freedom Zone’, a festival for ‘free marketeers’ outside the conference ‘Ring of Steel’.

Under Osborne’s austerity, they acted as ginger groups, helping push more cuts in spending and taxes. Since then, though, they’ve moved physically closer to power. The Taxpayers’ Alliance/IEA conference HQ is now a big marquee—the ‘Think Tent’—erected inside the secure zone, which all delegates pass as they enter. Under Truss, they are much closer to power in real terms, too, providing key personnel and ideas to the leader.

Disastrously for the free marketeers, however, their ideas have been rejected by the markets. Kwasi Kwarteng announced uncosted tax cuts with unspecified spending cuts at the end of last month, promising they would lead to ‘Growth’. He hoped to borrow market confidence in the United Kingdom, expecting traders would believe an economy as big as ours will always land well even after a leap into the dark. Instead, the markets showed their lack of confidence in Kwarteng: they don’t believe he can do it, and caused enough instability to force a Bank of England bailout.

The Taxpayers Alliance/IEA don’t have a big rank and file, relying on secretive business funding. So these free marketeers being rejected by the markets is a harsh blow. They don’t have many other forces to mobilise to back up Truss, and have been reduced to moaning and griping instead.

For fifteen years, the Tories have pretended to have a social conscience to cover their work for exploitative finance: Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, May’s ‘Burning injustices’, Johnson’s ‘Levelling up’. Truss decided these fake concerns were the real problem. Conservatives have spent years pissing on our boots and telling us it’s raining. Truss decided to piss on our boots and tell us it was piss, and that we should enjoy it. But the markets preferred the con-job to Truss’ headbanging approach, which has left the Tory coalition tearing itself apart.

I saw this in action at an Amazon-funded fringe meeting with Jacob Rees-Mogg. Amazon’s UK boss John Boumphrey told Tory delegates the government needs to ‘focus on the regulatory climate’. Amazon prefer lighter regulation, but they expect the government to make it happen without things blowing up. Only the Tory political coalition can’t agree how.

The IEA’s communications director, Annabel Denham, was also on the platform. Delegates were told she came from the ‘cradle of Trussonomics’. But as Truss wrestles with making the IEA’s policies real, Denham could only moan that it was ‘immensely frustrating that Brexit provided the opportunity to finally ignite the bonfire of red tape, but we have not done so.’ Rees-Mogg responded by making fun of Denham, saying regulations can be positive because ‘we don’t send people up chimneys anymore and—whisper it—some EU regulations are really good’.

A show of hands by delegates, who were given free gin and tonics throughout thanks to Amazon and were by that point heading towards half-cut, showed they mostly opposed Truss’s U-turn on top rate tax. But Rees-Mogg defended it, arguing that ‘sometimes you can’t go against the grain of the nation’ or go ‘too fast’.

This is the Tory coalition pulling against itself. Big business wants effective deregulation, and the hard right have promised unworkable cuts for which they have not built popular support—and instead of backing team Truss, the leader closest to their views, they and the Tory grassroots are turning bitter, leaving ministers like Rees-Mogg isolated. Rees-Mogg is already proposing deregulation his fellow ministers think is unrealistic, but the Tory right are as likely to turn on him as back him.

Instead, Truss’s internal opponents are gathering round Michael Gove, who through many appearances at conference is trying to rally what he calls the ‘communitarian’ wing of the party. Gove’s appearance at a meeting of the Tony Blair Institute, which was held ‘silent disco’ style with delegates listening via headphones, shows that some top Tories would welcome a return to a kind of ‘sensible centrism’. But despite what pundits say, these are not ‘nicer’ Tories. They want a return to sugaring the pill that Truss thinks we should enjoy swallowing dry.

Gove also helped launch a booklet on ‘Social Capitalism’ at conference, which argues that ‘we are driven by affections and obligations that transcend the diktats of the market and the state. In a word we are driven by love—love of family, of community, of nation.’ These ‘commmunitarians’ think the government needs to invest in this ‘social capital’ to glue society together. But they are explicitly willing to crack down on people ‘outside’ the obligations of family or nation: this stuff goes with crackdowns on the unemployed, migrants, and ‘woke’ values, because the opposite of love is hate.

The huge lobbying at Tory conference also continues, with polluting corporations hosting supposedly ‘green’ meetings, banks paying for exclusive ‘lounges’ for MPs, lobbying giant Edelman hosting all international visitors, and so on. But that caravan can easily move on to a compliant Labour conference, which Starmer is keen to host.

Conference shows that the Tories are having trouble functioning as a political party of the ruling elite, descending into internecine battles and naff performances. As their capacity to fulfil that role weakens, so, possibly, will capital’s interest. What will be left then is unclear. The Maggie cardboard cut-outs can only serve as an anchor for so long.