Tim Bale unpacks what this year’s Conservative Party conference reveals about the state of the party and its strategy ahead of the next election.
It’s over ten years since American electoral guru Nate Silver reminded us that we need to forget about the stuff that only seems important and focus on what really matters – to distinguish, as the title of his best-selling book put it, between the signal and the noise.
In reality, of course, things are more complicated. Political parties in particular will often make one hell of a noise precisely in order to send a signal. Now and again, however, they’ll do it to obscure one. Sometimes they’ll even do both at the same time. And sometimes, of course, they’d rather there was no noise at all but are simply powerless to prevent it.
So what, in the wake of their roller-coaster of a Conference in Manchester, can we meaningfully say about the Conservatives?
We’ve now got a pretty good idea, if we didn’t have before, of how they’re hoping, under the guidance of their campaign mastermind Isaac Levido, to frame the narrative of the election as polling day draws closer.
OK, the story runs, things may not be perfect right now but they’re getting better by the day. Are you really going to take a punt on a Labour Party that doesn’t share your values? Especially when, if it’s change you’re after, then Rishi is your man. Who do you prefer? A fresh-faced, fortysomething meritocrat who’s prepared to make tough choices and bin politics as usual in order to shore up the nation’s finances and stand up to the wokerati? Or that wrinkly, flip-flopping, lefty-lawyer, Keir Starmer and the LGBTQ+ spendthrifts lined up behind him?
Moreover, we can now pretty much guarantee that this message will be amplified by the party in media – the true-blue newspapers that wasted no time in declaring Sunak’s closing speech a total triumph by the man The Times’s frontpage headline (hoping, perhaps, to render the prime minister reassuringly middle, as opposed to club, class) chose to label ‘Son of a pharmacist’, the alternative, ‘Husband of a billionaire’, presumably not quite fitting the bill.
Yet they’re going to have a tough job persuading an electorate which, if months of polling are anything to go by, already looks to have decided that the Tories are – in no particular order: responsible for a cost of living crisis and a collapsing health service; unable to ‘stop the boats’; out of ideas; at the mercy of events; and led by a guy who’s not only not quite up to the job but so stratospherically wealthy that he can’t possibly understand what life’s actually like for the rest of us.
Now, it would be an exaggeration to suggest that Conservative MPs briefing journalists in Manchester that they’re beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel know full well that it’s actually the light coming from the proverbial oncoming train. But many of them are finding it impossible not to think about who will take over from Sunak should they lose a general election likely to take place this time next year.
Given the Tory party has always been, as one of the party’s many historians memorably put it, ‘an autocracy tempered by assassination’, its annual conference is always a heady combination of beauty-contest and drive-by shooting. But this year especially so – thanks especially to a barnstorming speech by Suella Braverman and a warm-up routine by Penny Mordaunt.
If such a contest does take place, it will only serve to confirm what has been evident to those of us who have spent years studying the Conservatives but became all-too-obvious in Manchester. Namely that, if they continue to play along with the culture war stuff on the grounds that it might not be pretty but could still prove effective, then the party is in severe danger of slipping its moorings as a party of the mainstream centre-right and sailing off into the shark-infested, migrant-bashing, war-on-woke, multiculturalism-has-failed, conspiracy-fuelled waters of national populism.
True, there is a potential market for that – a fairly sizable one if support for Trump in the US and Orbán in Hungary is anything to go by – but, in a country that’s getting ever more diverse, more liberal, and (whisper it softly, less Labour be listening) less Brexity, it’s probably a shrinking one, at least in the long run. And anyway there’s a tricky tension between the radical-right wing populism that some Conservatives are now espousing and the bog-standard Thatcherism that brought most of them into the party in the first place.
Unless the former is simply intended to distract from the latter (and nobody should dismiss that possibility), then eventually it entails splashing a bit more cash.That, after all, is what Boris Johnson’s claim to be ‘levelling up’ on behalf of ‘the left-behind’ was supposed to be about. But, as Manchester made clear, cutting out on supposedly profligate spending so as to make room for tax cuts (the sooner the better, naturally) is what continues to animate an awful lot of Tories. That’s why the predicted row over the cancellation of the northern leg of HS2 – whether or not it was inspired by Dominic Cummings – turned out to be a something of a damp squib, notwithstanding the damaging signal it sends about the country’s ambition and ability to see things through.
On the upside for the party, the fact that the vast majority of its MPs and activists (in public at least) rowed in behind the PM on that and almost everything else suggests that its collective will to power has not yet deserted it. Whether that will be enough to rescue Rishi Sunak from the unfortunate fate of most takeover prime ministers, remains to be seen, although the post-conference loss of the party’s deposit in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election doesn’t exactly bode well.
By Tim Bale, Professor of Politics, Queen Mary University of London.