Having never attended the Conservative Party conference before, the first thing I noticed was how smartly dressed everyone was. All representatives were immaculately presented in office attire. For someone who worked for six years as a forklift truck driver and a further six as a nightclub doorman, it all seemed very formal. More like a business summit than an assembly of friends and colleagues. A far cry from the party atmosphere which seemed to epitomise the Labour conference.
Indeed, many members appeared to be attending through habit or duty rather than being inspired by any greater vision or sense of purpose. This, I think, speaks not only to the unexpectedly poor election result, but also to a feeling that the party is both rudderless and lacking in any clear foundation around which to structure policy.
This hunch was reinforced by the fact that the two biggest crowd-pullers throughout the week were Ruth Davidson, the witty, successful, media-savvy leader of the Scottish Conservatives who added 12 new MPs at the last election, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the unapologetic conservative who recently spoke of his moral unease about abortion and same-sex marriage.
The party is looking around desperately for both leadership and meaning. Things the current Prime Minister is manifestly unable to provide.
The first major speech I attended was given by the Chancellor, Philip ‘Spreadsheet’ Hammond. He started well enough, giving delegates a history lesson on the economic and moral failings of socialism. He pointed out that in every location and in every epoch socialism has been tried, it has failed miserably. He argued that you need only a GCSE in economics to understand that stimulating demand through increased borrowing leads to inflation, and therefore to a lowering of living standards for our country’s poorest. True enough.
He then said that the Conservative Party needed to offer voters a real alternative to Corbyn-led socialism. As I waited with bated breath for his quixotic conservative vision, he proceeded to witter on about the government’s economic achievements, producing various statistics to back up his case. He then argued that house prices were too high, and pledged to turbo-charge George Osborne’s ‘help to buy’ scheme by pumping in £10billion to help young people get into the housing ladder. Sorry, Chancellor, but if you’re going to accuse your opponents of economic illiteracy, you might want to explain how stimulating demand for housing whilst doing nothing to increase supply is supposed to lower prices. Perhaps he should consider re-sitting that economics GCSE.
The most interesting event I attended was a fringe function hosted by Policy Exchange, with the title: Is the Intellectual Momentum all with the Left?
Sir Roger Scruton – probably the greatest living conservative philosopher – argued forcefully that while the political momentum is with the Left, the intellectual truth remains, and will always remain, with conservativism. A conservative ideology based on love of country will always be intellectually superior to the greed, envy and class hatred promulgated by the Left.
Jacob Rees-Mogg then outlined perfectly the political problem. At the last election Corbyn inserted a ‘golden thread of socialism’ throughout his manifesto. It was easy for voters to understand how his principles translated into policy. The young, Rees-Mogg argued, are principled and idealistic. The failure of the Conservative Party has been not to discuss principles and ideas for far too long. Once Conservative philosophy concerning responsibility and the freedom to choose were explained, implemented, and then contrasted with socialist ideals which give the state ever more control over lives, this political momentum could be curtailed. Belief, he said, should produce policy, not the other way around. Good stuff.
At another fringe event the brilliant Mark Littlewood (Institute of Economic Affairs) argued with some justification that the Conservative Party had lost sight of its economic principles and was no longer an economically liberal party. Conservative politicians, he said, always begin addresses by extolling the virtues of free markets, but then quickly go on to highlight their problems and make the case for intervention. It was almost as if he had received a premonition about the following morning.
On the final day, Theresa May began by heaping praise on free markets, correctly making the case they have been the greatest mechanism for prosperity and elevation from poverty the world has ever known. Then, without any hint of irony, she outlined proposals for price controls and housing subsidies. It is probably a good thing that all the post-conference coverage focused on her coughing fits and the unfortunate interruption. The content of the speech was dreadful.
Overall, the experience of my first conference filled me with both despair and optimism. Despair that the helm of the party is so completely bereft of ideas and principles, and so riddled with infighting that should an election be held tomorrow, they would have absolutely no hope whatever of preventing a hard Left socialist government taking office. But optimism that beneath cabinet level, the party is beginning to tackle its basic problems and to realign itself with its core values. Jacob Rees-Mogg, George Freeman, and MPs from the 2017 intake such as Kemi Badenoch and Ben Bradley were all very impressive.
I am in no doubt that once the Brexit negotiations have been concluded in 2019, the party should find alternative leadership and further reconnect with its guiding principles. Should it fail to do so, the result will be a long slow death not only of the Conservative Party, but of Great Britain itself.