The conference should have been a victory parade for their new leader, Liz Truss, but even before it started it was obvious that the Government’s fiscal event – and the reception it received – would make for a fractious affair.
Any hope of the party healing itself following its leadership contest seemed unlikely. But turning up at the receptions and fringes last night made it clear: very large numbers of MPs have simply stayed away. They’re in no mood to patch things up. The Rishi Sunak supporters that have arrived have come to make mischief – and what mischief.
Michael Gove, who we spotted throughout the day on his phone and in hushed corners, could well have dealt a fatal blow to the Chancellor already in leading a rebellion on the 45p rate cut issue. He was in the same studio as the Prime Minister for the Laura Kuenssberg interview on Sunday morning to make a public declaration that he would be voting against it, despite the threat of expulsion from the Parliamentary party. Truss must have seen the whites of his eyes because she then distanced herself from the policy during her BBC interview and dumped Kwasi Kwarteng, her Chancellor, in it by saying it was all his idea and decision. The warning bells of a Government U-turn were starting to chime and late last night it was confirmed to the Sun newspaper. The 45p rate cut was dead.
Dozens of Tory MPs are furious that, despite its minimal impact in the grand scheme, this policy was totemic and could be perceived as support for the rich at the expense of the rest. The U-turn, while probably sinking the conference, might have stemmed an imminent Parliamentary rebellion. But what about the bigger fallout?
The fiscal event needs to be seen in a wider context to properly understand this question.
Like so many internal Tory battles it’s related to Brexit.
The fiscal package didn’t just signal change, but set in motion a profound realignment in the political and economic direction of the UK. It ripped up 30 years of orthodoxy about tax and spending, growth, and the Keynesian tenet on managing demand. What it did is pivot towards supply-side economics, Reaganomics, and laffer curves; call it what you will, the new approach is to tear up the redistributive consensus and promote low tax, pro-enterprise, supply-side reforms aimed at growing the economy. The measures announced the Friday before last was the first step.
For many on the political right, the chance to chart this new economic direction was the key rationale for Brexit. EU membership was the block they saw. Brexit the opportunity.
This is what Liz Truss promised them in her pitch to the Conservatives during her leadership campaign: a new way. This is why, despite originally having been a Remainer, they got behind her; after all, Brexit was a means to an end, not an end in itself. So what that she had supported the EU project previously – they saw her as ‘sound’ on her economic approach, even if she hadn’t originally realised that EU membership was the impediment to delivering it.
But if the wheels fall off this economic realignment, or the Government crumbles before any changes start to make a difference, then for a large swathe on the economic right of the Conservative party the pain of Brexit will have been borne in vain.
This is what we’re witnessing in Birmingham: that realisation.
Even among those intrinsically in support of the end goal (and Rishi Sunak is probably among them), they believe this is the wrong time to press the button on it. There is too much uncertainty, too much Government debt, and world events are too unpredictable. Get this wrong and the Conservatives are out of power for the foreseeable; there won’t be another chance. Whereas Margaret Thatcher had the detail in front of her when she followed the Hayek & Friedman economic path, many Tory MPs believe the Truss-Kwarteng package is reckless, fiscally unsafe and uncosted – the spooked markets and the City fear debt-fuelled inflation underscoring these concerns.
If it pays off then the Government will likely see success in the next General Election; if it doesn’t they won’t. This is not a gamble many Tory MPs want to take.
But the reality is that if this conference goes ok and the Government clears the Parliamentary hurdles for their fiscal approach then it’s game on. Time is running out for the rebels and if they don’t inflict more pain and affect a further change of tack, they know their fate is out of their hands.
Liz Truss has a huge job to do during this conference to explain why this is the right time, to channel back to her MPs, and convince them that this gamble (for she must see it as such) is stacked in their favour.
That’s looking like a tall order at this point.
Watch this space.
The H+K Strategies team are on site in Birmingham and will be reporting throughout.