OPINION - Chaos, counter briefings and infighting – inside the Tory conference

Prime Minister Liz Truss  (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)
Prime Minister Liz Truss (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

Looking back at sixties California from the vantage point of murky 1971, Hunter S Thompson climbed a hill in nearby Las Vegas and looked West. "With the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark" he wrote. "That place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

That’s how some Tories seemed to feel at their Birmingham conference this year. “I think we’re finished as a movement” worried one member in a Q&A Tuesday evening. Another told the BBC there was “a certain sense of doom” as she arrived. The Conservative party has been in power for over 12 years, and feels a bit out of ideas. It’s not surprising, given years of infighting. Brexit is done, Boris is gone, and austerity trundles on. So what are they for these days?

Johnson, Theresa May, and Rishi Sunak didn’t come to the midlands, and neither did the likes of Sajid Javid, though they were said to have sent aides. That left Liz Truss and her band of mostly loyal cabinet ministers to entertain the party faithful, lobbyists, and media. At a party on the first night, not many MPs turned up to watch Truss speak to a 1922 Committee party: I counted less than five.

There, the PM tried valiantly to defend her tax cuts. But by morning, she’d U-turned on the most high profile one, on the top rate of income tax. She said by the end of 2023, there would be "spades in the ground", meaning economic wins. But what is she digging for, and can people wait that long? Part way through, some low piano music played in the background, almost like she was being played off stage.

The other ministers’ speeches lacked conviction to begin with. In the Conference Centre, new Health Secretary Therese Coffey led a meeting with health insiders about plans for the NHS. She half-heartedly urged collaboration between different hospital trusts. If it was that easy, one wondered why they haven’t done it yet. Coffey, who is Deputy PM, said that if the party worked together, there was still the “possibility of winning the next election”. She didn’t sound hopeful.

As the conference went on, they started to play the old hits, but they didn’t sound quite right. On the economy, Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng couldn’t work out if he was blaming Labour for the economic mess, or his own party. He seemed to lay low apart from scheduled appearances, though managed a few gaffes, blaming the Queen’s death for his badly received mini-budget. On immigration, Home Secretary Suella Braverman sounded a little too much like Cruella de Ville as she said it was her “dream” and “obsession” to see migrants flown to Rwanda by Christmas. Wokeism was on the menu too. New Higher Education Minister Andrea Jenkyns complained that young people today are being pushed to “get a degree in Harry Potter studies than in construction”.

Even the clashes with protesters outside felt a bit old hat. Picking up my conference pass, a nice lady asked if I’d been called ‘Tory Scum’ out there. “You’d have thought they would have come up for another name for us by now”, she sighed.

There were moments of incredulity among journalists as the party tore chunks out of itself hour by hour by the third day. One moment cabinet member Penny Mordaunt was slamming Truss for not committing to increasing benefits with inflation. The next the Home Secretary was accusing colleagues of a ‘coup’. Ex-minister Grant Shapps gave Truss had ten days to sort out the mess. But even the journalists got a little jaded. One described the week wearily as “people slagging each other off in tents”.

By the end, Truss seemed relieved to get through her keynote speech without any major stumbles. A protest by Greenpeace may even help her cause: Truss seemed keen to pit herself against an “anti-growth coalition”, which she claims are a varied bunch: Labour, the militant unions, and climate change activists Extinction Rebellion, who all take taxis from “North London townhouses to BBC studios”. But the dangerous opposition is within her own party.

Never underestimate the Tories, who are a remarkably successful election winning machine. A new 2022 Group, led by young London mayoral hopeful Samuel Kasumu, hopes to get more young non-white activists involved. Their party had people dancing enthusiastically in one meeting room. Don’t bet against them becoming influential one day.

And there was still a boisterous mood to be found at the bars, fuelled by alcohol and a sense that perhaps one might as well enjoy just one more party it while it lasted. It peaked on Monday night. Party conferences are the party faithful’s Glastonbury, and there were plenty there who were not quite sure the rest of the country wasn’t as keen on their heroes as they were. They hoped for selfies with the few that were pressing the flesh. One drunk reveller even threw up in the Hyatt’s lobby.

By Tuesday, it was quieter, as people headed home before train strikes. But some gritted their teeth until the end. “You can’t just give up when it gets tough” one keen Conservative who has been coming since she was 15 told me. It might be tough for some time yet.