Conservative Conference 2022: Coalition of Chaos

The seams in the big Tory broad tent, so long straining, no longer hold together. It wasn’t just the 45p tax rate row that overshadowed proceedings this week at Conservative Conference 2022 in Birmingham, but a wider sense that the Conservative party needs to renew itself for the second time in a year and the fifth time since the 2016 referendum was supposed to heal the party once and for all – but it has all of a sudden forgotten how to do so.

Picture of the central atrium at the Conservative party Conference, Birmingham, 2022
The atrium at #CPC22 in Birmingham

There’s no question that the government was not ready for this conference. Not ready, because it has not set itself up properly yet. Not ready, because the libertarian creed doesn’t translate across a developed economy with complex and deep-rooted problems. Beyond platitudes (the NHS is very big and yet it has so many managers!) the new ministers couldn’t draw upon a sophisticated understanding of what is wrong with the country and what can be done to put it right. Tax cuts are talked about as though they are revolutionary, growth as though successive Conservative governments haven’t pursued a growth-sapping Brexit. So the new ministers tied themselves in knots and prayed for the sweet release of the end of whatever fringe they’d been put in front of. (In passing, there were a lot of fringes where the front bencher just refused to turn up or one was not allocated in the first place. That is not the way to persuade organisations to spend money at your conference. If the Conservatives find their way into opposition then they may find that their income from fringe events completely dries up.) Not ready, because it can’t decide what of its 12 year record it wants to take credit for and what belongs to the ludicrous ‘anti-growth coalition’.

If the party doesn’t know what it is and what its reflexes are, it is pretty clear what it is not. I found no enthusiasm for Truss beyond those who think she will do things that they claim Thatcher would like. Despite the best efforts of the Daily Telegraph, nor did I find any enthusiasm at all for Johnson. His name didn’t come up, except in the context of a discussion on the differences between the electoral conditions of 2019 and 2024. In discussion of social care, the problems facing the sector were grimly spelled out. No one pretended that a plan of reform as announced on the steps of Downing Street in 2019 was being successfully implemented.

There was plenty of gallows humour, aimed both at the Truss administration and at the polls. The party seems to have recognised that it has to choose between the red wall and the blue wall. Currently the blue wall is winning, on the grounds that the red wall is, consensus has it, already lost. 

I described last week’s Labour conference as 2014-esque. The Conservatives at their 2014 conference were full of beans and thinking of themselves as insurgents. Bin off their Lib Dem partners and sunny uplands would emerge. Some of that happened. But perhaps a better historical parallel is Labour’s 2007 budget. Gordon Brown’s last budget included the abolition of a tax rate (in this case the 10p starter rate). This measure overshadowed what Brown was trying to do overall, including a cut in the standard rate, and the fallout seriously damaged Brown’s credibility. We won’t know for a while what the long term effects of the 45p row will be, but the collapse in Truss’s authority within her party, although not irreparable, will have wider consequences.

Johnson’s coalition is gone but the chaos remains.

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