Not so much a party conference. Not even an end of the pier show. More of a funeral wake. At which most of the participants appear to have already died. Four years ago the Tories won an 80-seat majority and looked set to remain in power for another decade. Now they act like the walking dead. Shell-shocked, out of ideas. Desperate to find someone other than themselves to blame for the mess they’ve caused. Desperate to reinvent the unreinventable. To persuade themselves that previous Conservatives weren’t really Conservatives. The story of the one true Tory.
Its reputation precedes it. There are only a brave few – we unhappy few – who have made it to Manchester for the Tory conference. Dead-eyed delegates anxious to be sucked into a collective delusion. If only for a few hours. Anything to shake off the reality. The whole conference hall has had to be reconfigured this year. Normally the main hall is situated at the far end. Now it has been transferred to a much smaller venue, in the annexe where the media used to be camped. There just aren’t the numbers. Anything bigger would merely show up the void.
Survival is the most anyone really expects. To get through the next four days more or less unscathed. No one except the prime minister’s nearest and dearest places much faith in a reset. A reset to what exactly? The ever decreasing circle of the Tory right? There’s nothing much left that Rishi Sunak can say to the country. Except sorry.
Most reckon the Tories have little chance at the next election and that Sunak’s days are numbered. Which is why the biggest excitement in Manchester centres on the vultures circling around the leader. There’s Suella Braverman. Mouthing off to anyone who will listen about how she loves refugees so much it’s time to abandon the UN convention and let them drown. No spiteful nonsense is too rabid for her to sweet-talk the right wing of the party.
Priti Patel has her own designs. She hasn’t forgiven Suella for taking her old job and she happily trash talks the home secretary as an attention seeker. Then there’s Liz Truss. Due to make an intervention on Monday. The more unhelpful the better. You’d have thought she might have enough self-worth to stay away. To gather what dignity she can. But no. Just too stupid to realise the damage she’s done. The Tory centrists are nowhere to be seen. They are not in the fight for the party’s future. The Conservatives have lost their soul and they are not wanted.
But some kind of normal service has to take place. A meta conference for a meta party. Performance politics. So Rish! began the day with the traditional Sunday morning leader’s interview with Laura Kuenssberg. Probably not his ideal start to the day, but then it’s hard to think what is. Other than refusing to come out of his hotel room while consuming vast quantities of psychedelic drugs.
Interviews aren’t Sunak’s strong point. Or rather his less weak weak point. The Inaction Man jibe has really got to him. It’s broken through his narcissistic defences and we are getting to see the real Rish!. Entitled, tetchy, out of touch. Pretty much exactly as the wordcloud Kuenssberg confronted him with observed. The public have got Sunak’s measure. Every bit as much as he has not got ours. He believes he deserves his privilege. But just not being Boris Johnson and Liz Truss is not enough. Especially when you’ve been chancellor.
Sunak tried to act tough. Was he ready to take the hard decisions? “Hell yeah,” he said, channelling his inner Ed Miliband. He was ready to get down and dirty. To deliver for the UK whether the UK liked it or not. Except he wasn’t really. Asked to yet again give a straight answer on HS2, he fudged it. Now wasn’t the time to speculate. Mate. Er … that horse has bolted. Mate. You just look weak. Ineffectual. Unable to level with the country. Or to level up the country.
Next, RishGPT jumped on to his favourite new bandwagon. He was the motorists’ motorist. No one cared more about cars than he did. It’s just that he hadn’t yet worked out how to fill one up with petrol. Or how to pay for it. Guess helicopters must be different. But Labour hated cars. But he loved them. Never walked anywhere. And he’d be absolutely thrilled if someone driving at 30mph just happened to run him over. It would be a helluva way to go. Death and glory.
The conference proper started with a speech from party chair Greg Hands. The undersized hall was three-quarters empty. Those that did make it soon wondered why. Not just the chance to win a bottle of champagne signed by Sunak in the £5-a-ticket draw. Village fetes have had more excitement. Here was an energy vacuum. No buzz of excitement. Just the gentle purr of life-support machines. The highlight of his speech was the advertisement for Keir Starmer flip-flops in the conference shop. Hard to believe this was once a serious party.
Then, the Tories are obsessed with Starmer and Labour. They have nothing to say about their own successes – such as they are. Rather, they relentlessly focus on Labour. Their nemesis. Almost as they know they can’t avoid being written out of history. A chronicle of a death foretold. But Hands, believe it or not, was the high point. What followed was a procession of deadbeats. Who programmes this stuff? Peak boredom after 40 minutes.
We did then get Grant Shapps and James Cleverly. The idea of an internet chancer with multiple identities making it to defence secretary is a category error. Two fingers to the country. And Jimmy Dimly – aka Airmiles James – really just wanted to talk about the 60 countries he has visited while travelling first class. Simple pleasures. Oh! And we have a wonderful trade deal with Micronesia. It made you wonder why they bothered.
Later in the afternoon, Sunak would do one of his PM Disconnect events with party members. Only no member of the media was allowed in. Such confidence in his abilities. The death of the Tory party was to be by invitation only. Behind closed doors. Your prayers are welcome.