GOOD news, readers. I went to the Conservative Party Conference so you didn’t have to (you can thank me later).
To endure, let alone enjoy, such jamborees, one has to treat it as a social rather than political event. You meet friends for drinks and lunch, preferably both. And feel free to turn to those next to you in the queue for the event you’re attending and talk about politics: they won’t be offended and may even agree with you.
Wellbeing is enhanced by avoiding the formal conference events. Main-hall activities are always so scripted (and thus dull) that they’re suitable only for insomniacs. I haven’t been to a leader’s speech since the time I accidentally strolled into the press section of the hall and found a copy of David Cameron’s oration on each chair. Whatever magic there may have been was gone when one knew every joke, fist shake and dramatic pause that was coming.
The main-hall occasions are interesting only for what they reveal of who the membership is enthusiastic about. This year, I was told that it was standing room only for Kemi Badenoch but parliamentary candidates had to be instructed to attend Rishi Sunak’s speech to ensure the right level of enthusiasm for the leader. Conference has always been a mix of Tory boys in not quite fitting suits and old shire Conservatives reliving the glory days of Maggie. This year, the old boys and girls seemed much less numerous. Perhaps they couldn’t summon the enthusiasm to spend several hundred pounds on travel, hotels and passes to hear Rishi.
To get the most, politically, out of a party conference you need to go to the various fringe meetings, some held within the secure zone, some outside it and some so verboten that the party doesn’t list them in the conference brochure. Here, you may learn something interesting and get a sense of where the party is really heading.
The first thing I learnt was that the government’s finances are screwed. At a Centre for Policy Studies meeting, Paul Johnson from the Institute for Fiscal Studies itemised just how badly UK plc was in the soup. Laura Perrins set out much of Mr Johnson’s conclusions here, but he also pointed out that public expenditure had grown in real terms by 20 per cent during this Parliament and that funding the NHS Workforce Plan would cost the equivalent of a 2 per cent increase in the basic rate of income tax. Economic growth was unlikely to solve this conundrum. I felt Private Frazer’s spirit in the room.
Holding these fringe meetings isn’t cheap, especially within the security barriers. Anyone who can afford this and lay on a good lunch has lots of money. And this year most of the money was talking about Net Zero. As a minister at one event noted, there was so much talk of Net Zero it felt more like an environment conference than a Conservative one. But not only did the speakers not have answers to the problems they need to overcome (such as the impossibly high costs of retro-fitting the housing stock to be carbon-neutral and making the electricity grid capable of delivering the quantum of renewable power required), one had the suspicion that they knew they didn’t have the answers. Still, the opportunity to be trapped in a venue to lobby ministers for more green subsidies was not to be missed.
There was no real debate at the Net Zero fringes. Like a discussion on Newsnight or the Today programme, everyone on the panels essentially agreed with each other. When taking questions from the floor, the man from Net Zero Watch pointed out that wind power looked cheaper only if one ignored the cost of back-up generation required, but the panellist responded by reiterating that two legs bad, four legs good and that was that.
Amidst all of this, one could find some proper conservatives. The Conservative Democratic Organisation held a gala dinner (the swankiest event at Conference) at which there was a whole table of GB News presenters, Nigel Farage grinning ear to ear as he posed for selfies. I was told that party bosses had informed ambitious youngsters that their chances of being selected for a parliamentary seat would be damaged by being seen at this event, though the room couldn’t have been much fuller. One could see why they wouldn’t be happy, though; CDO founder and funder Lord Cruddas urged big party donors (as he once was) to turn off the money taps until the party was more democratic.
The New Conservatives held a rally to launch five election manifesto proposals that were really traditional conservative ideas (all the better for that) with a dozen MPs speaking and probably 250 people squeezed into the room. The enthusiasm was palpable, though the New Conservatives haven’t mastered the internet or social media as there’s still no link to their event or their proposals.
What to make of it all? Despite the superficial optimism, the positioning of cabinet members suggests they don’t really think Rishi Sunak will keep them in power after the general election, and a lot of party members are quietly resigned to defeat. The only hope is that, as Mr Micawber would say, something will turn up. But no one wants to wield the knife before the electorate have had their say and Sunak can’t be seen to be breaking unity by sacking any of his rivals. So the pantomime must be played out, Labour will probably win the general election and then a bloody battle for the Conservative Party and its leadership will begin. What was that you said, Private Frazer?