This week’s Tory conference in Manchester takes place at a strange political moment.
We may already be halfway through a Parliament, but thanks to Covid it doesn’t feel as though it’s even got started. That delay feels even more acute for a government whose agenda, on both the climate and ‘Levelling Up’, is the stuff of decades’ work. No wonder Michael Gove divides the Levelling Up part of his new brief into two sections: the first, a ‘visible difference’ in local areas; the second – far trickier – ‘laying the groundwork for your long-term economic transformation’.
It’s fair to say not all Tories share Gove or Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm for a state-led economic transformation, and conference season is always a great time for the press pack to focus on rumblings of internal discontent. With Labour still off the pitch, it’s tempting to suggest the PM’s biggest worry is fellow Conservatives sceptical of both Levelling Up and Net Zero, and aghast at the recent tax rise to fill the NHS money pit.
It’s certainly true that he won’t be losing much sleep over the opposition. Keir Starmer’s more optimistic supporters may have seen his 90-minute conference address as a statement of intent. But, as I wrote on Wednesday, while the speech was no disaster, it was hard to discern a killer theme, or anything that will have the Government too worried. As Rakib Ehsan argued on CapX, immigration and Brexit remain fatal weaknesses for Starmer, and he said little to address either issue. More worryingly for Starmer, he seems unable to make much headway even when the front pages are full of stories that should be damaging for the Government.
As it stands, the only area Labour are beating the Conservatives is in the ferocity of their navel-gazing. The Johnson agenda certainly may not chime with all of his party’s rank-and-file, but it’s hard to imagine him being heckled when he gets up for his big speech at Wednesday lunch time. Indeed, for various reasons, the whole atmosphere of Tory conference is usually a bit more sedate and corporate than its rivals – less red flags, more red trousers. (One of those reasons is that the exorbitant cost of attendance prices out many ordinary activists.)
Tory manoeuvring is also rather less in-your-face than what we saw from the shouty lefties down in Brighton. Take Jacob Rees-Mogg telling The Telegraph ‘we are taxed as highly as the country can afford’ – as clear a pre-Budget message as you’ll get from a sitting Cabinet minister. Likewise, you don’t have to squint too hard to see a bit of a warning in Kwasi Kwarteng’s comment in a ConservativeHome interview that we can’t ‘tax our way to wealth’.
In both cases, however, the remarks come off more as senior figures showing a bit of leg to the base than offering a concerted critique of Johnson’s approach. Indeed, it’s remarkable how easily Tory MPs have rowed in behind an agenda that is, if not entirely antithetical, certainly orthogonal to the party’s recent ideological history. On the Health and Social Care Levy, as tax ‘n’ spend a measure as you’ll get, just 10 out of 363 MPs voted against. Compare that to Tony Blair, who even in his pomp saw 84 Labour MPs rebel over the Iraq War.
So while we might hear quite a bit of sounding off from Tory MPs telling the faithful they remain committed to a smaller state and lower taxes, the sad truth for us economic liberals is that Boris is in charge, and he doesn’t seem terribly interested in either.
PS: If you are at conference, the really is the place to be. We’ve pulled out all the stops this year, with events featuring Michael Gove, Liz Truss, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Therese Coffey, David Frost and US polling superstar Frank Luntz, to name just a few.
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