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Party Conference Political Insight: They know they’re beatenOctober 5, 2022

You campaign in poetry and govern in prose said Mario Cuomo, three term governor of New York state.

Rarely have both literary forms been done away with so totally as at this year’s Conservative Party Conference.

Birmingham felt like government by bumper sticker.

The same slogans repeated across each day of the conference: ‘growth, growth, growth’, ‘getting Britain moving’, ‘build, build, build’ point to a party in crisis, and a government that despite being the most ideologically driven in decades has no clear plan for where it is going next.

In the conference centre
The only attendees who seemed energised by this conference were free market think-tanks, like the IEA and ASI, who saw queues for their events, and talks from big name politicians, like the Chancellor and Business Secretary, who spent more time addressing the ideological faithful than on the main stage of the conference hall. This is government for 55 Tufton Street, in large part by 55 Tufton Street alumni. Given the broad church of the Conservative Party voter base, aligning so closely with the high priests of libertarianism is as divisive a stance inside the party as it is outside.

Division, rather than unity, was the watchword of this conference. As more speeches were given, it became clearer and clearer that cabinet collective responsibility was breaking down: with a Number 10 machine trying and failing to assert its authority on ministers who it seemed were very willing to voice their disagreement with stated government policy loudly and publicly at fringe events, and even from the main stage.

This lack of discipline permeated throughout the whole of the party: as MPs begin to return to London, there is open talk of ‘brutal’ discipline being needed, with the threat of the whip being withdrawn, or even a snap election, if MPs will not vote the ‘mini-budget’ through parliament. Activists, and parliamentary candidates were hardly aligned to the Prime Minister’s vision either, as they flocked to the bar, night after night, speaking loudly about how their chances of becoming MPs at the next election had been torpedoed by the Prime Minister, who in many cases, they backed with their votes only weeks ago.

Rather than a unifying moment, this conference demonstrated the scale of the challenge in front of the Prime Minister – an ideological, campaigning Number 10, needs to corral its minister, its MPs, and its activists into a coherent fighting force, and it needs to do it in just 18 months.

This seems like a challenge that many have already accepted that the party will not be able to rise to.

The Leader’s Speech:
Despite fears expressed by party officials, the conference hall was full for Liz Truss’ speech: a 30 minute exposition of her ideology – defining Conservatism as in favour of ‘freedom, fair play and the potential of the British people’ – and framing her as an insurgent outsider, a ‘doer’, a ‘changemaker’, and someone from a non-elite background.

Applause felt muted in the room – even as those present tried to rally around the Prime Minister as her speech was briefly disrupted by anti-fracking protestors. Striking was the limited enthusiasm for her programme of deregulation, and the number of times she felt she had to reassure conference delegates that her and Kwarteng were working ‘in lock step’ – pointing to the damage that rumours of the split between these two libertarian fellow travellers has had on party morale.

The longest round of applause was for the people of Ukraine – the support of which is much more clearly associated with her predecessor, Boris Johnson, rather than the current incumbent of Number 10.

Truss said during her speech that ‘not everyone is in favour of change, but everyone will benefit from the results’ – time will tell if these words were prophetic, or a mark of just how wrong this government got it in the final days of a 15 years era of Conservative government.

BCW View: Matt Sutton, Associate Director, Corporate & Public Affairs:
"Liz Truss used her speech at conference to attempt to demonstrate she had a clear vision for the future of Britain, against the backdrop of a mutinous parliamentary party and a bruising few days in Birmingham.

"In the room, much of what she said was greeted with tepid applause - even after the interruption caused by protestors - with many delegates complaining as I left the room that she was policy light and searching for headlines.

"Rather than acting as a unifying force, the Conservatives return to parliament next week with an increasingly divisive leader, and what appears to be a ruddlerless legislative agenda."

What Businesses should take away from this conference:

  • The Labour Party has a veto on government policy: regardless of announcements from the Prime Minister about spending on infrastructure – nothing is set in stone unless Labour endorses it. Consider ministerial commitments in this light.
  • The backbenches have power: with the breakdown of collective responsibility, and the u-turn on the 45P rate of tax, this government needs to rule in collaboration with its backbenchers. Diktats from on high won’t work. So, business can build a coalition of supporters outside of the ministerial ranks and get policy and legislation changed quickly and effectively

No individual policy is safe: the Prime Minister’s speech was more about setting a mood than a to-do list of policies. Certainty is the last thing that you should expect from this government, and the value of political intelligence, up to the minute and from the coal face of British politics, has never been clearer.