Anand Menon reflects on this year’s Conservative conference, arguing that the party was more focused on fighting internal battles than sending a clear message to the outside world.
They’re gearing up for the fight. The problem is, they’re gearing up for different fights, some of them with each other. The Conservative Party conference in Manchester this year has been a sight to behold.
In reality, there were three conferences going on in and around the Midland Hotel and adjoining conference centre. In the first, ministers trooped onto the main stage to try to convince the (at times sparse) audience that they could overcome the odds and triumph over Labour at the next election.
It wasn’t exactly edifying. For all the emphasis on difficult decisions for the long term, the key pronouncement, on HS2, was a relatively easy one that, it is hoped, will create the fiscal headroom necessary to provide short-term pre-election tax cuts. As for the nonsense about meat taxes and 15 minute cities (inter alia), a serious political party should know better.
Less apparent to those who weren’t there was the fringe. And here, the second conference unfolded. Simply put, there is a battle beginning for the ideological soul of the Party. There were the One Nation Tories uncomfortable with the language coming from their colleagues on the right. And, speaking of the right, there was Nigel Farage being feted in the conference centre (Tim Montgomerie hinted on the Today programme that he thought Farage might win a leadership contest if he stood). More generally, Liz Truss wants tax cuts. Andy Street wants investment. Theresa May called net zero ‘the growth opportunity of the century’, while Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho attacked ‘net zero zealots’. Meanwhile, the New Conservatives want to reduce the number of people going to university and to pull out of the ECHR, but Tom Tugenhadt warned against the dangers of the latter step. There really was something for everyone.
Paul Waugh put it well: ‘Are the Tories modernising Cameroons? Are they big spending Boris boosterites? Are they a new kind of Farageiste/Trump rump? Do they believe in localism or centralism? Are they liberals who want free speech or authoritarians who ban smoking?’ They answer, it seems, is ‘all of the above.’
The debate is far from over. It’s simply too soon to say the Conservative Party has been taken over by the far right. There was indeed plenty of right-wing rhetoric. But much of this was railing against… the government. There’s a reason immigration is high. It’s because government policy has been deliberately liberal.
Nor should we be surprised by any of this. This struggle is an inevitable outcome of tensions among Brexiters unresolved since the referendum. The Leave campaign appealed to both those who sought control for its own sake and others who wanted to use it to cut immigration. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, succeeded in stitching together a Leave electoral coalition broad enough to secure a decent majority, but fragile enough never to be able to survive a collision with real policy choices.
And finally, there was the third conference. The one that fired the starting gun of a leadership contest many think is inevitable. Ironically, it was largely those claiming the party can beat Labour who were displaying their wares in advance of a contest that would follow defeat. Yet they were all out there, making their pitches, setting out their stalls, and hoping to convince potential backers that they are the serious candidate.
And that’s perhaps why the whole thing felt so weird. A successful party conference rallies the troops and sends a clear message to the outside world. This one did neither. The troops were divided: the second and third conferences played precisely to those divisions. And, watching from the outside, it was hard to ignore them and take a clear message away.
Perhaps the most worrying thing for the Conservatives, paradoxically, is that the mood was not particularly funereal. There wasn’t that air of dejection or of impending disaster that the polls might lead one to expect. Not because of confidence ahead of the election. Rather, because attention was already focused beyond that. What matters, it seems, is the internal fight, the battle to come. And Labour supporters can testify to what it means when the battle for power in the party comes to seem more important than the battle to lead the country.
By Professor Anand Menon, Director, UK in a Changing Europe.