Emily Carver is a writer and broadcaster.
This year’s Conservative Party conference was a frustrating affair.
Speaking to numerous members, grassroots activists and Tory MPs, there was little in the way of enthusiasm for the party’s record nor for their prospects at the next election. Indeed, the overwhelming impression was of a Conservative party in the midst of an identity crisis.
Rishi Sunak’s keynote speech gave little for members to get overly excited or feel pride about. After days of chaotic messaging, we received confirmation that HS2 is officially derailed. The Northern leg will be scrapped, and the money ‘saved’ will be spent on hundreds of new transport projects in the north and the Midlands.
Many Conservatives have long thought the case for this infrastructure was weak and, with ballooning costs and constant delays, the change in direction seems sensible and pragmatic, if not rather an embarrassing admission of defeat.
David Cameron’s negative reaction to the decision serves to highlight how the party is, in some ways, at war with itself, accusing Sunak of “throw[ing] away 15 years of cross-party consensus, and acting against Britain’s long-term national interests.
While the announcement was probably a necessary one, he made the more bizarre decision to follow in Jacinda Ardern’s authoritarian footsteps and confirm his plans to ban smoking for the younger generation by incrementally raising the age at which people can buy cigarettes.
While the British people do tend to like banning things for other people, to many small state Conservatives this feels absurdly illiberal, at the same time as being frankly unworkable and largely unneeded (very few teenagers now actually smoke).
Time will tell whether this policy gets through Parliament but, with both chambers packed full of paternalists, I imagine it will. What’s for sure is that whether you agree or not with the move, it is hardly the ground-breaking type of policy to inspire party members or the nation to vote Conservative.
Other highlights included his plan to scrap A-levels in favour of a new and broader ‘advanced British standard’ qualification, his reiteration that “a man is a man and a woman is a woman” (doubling down on the Health Secretary’s intervention on single-sex hospital wards), and his insistence that he will make good on his promise to stop the boats. All reasonable, again hardly inspiring after 13 years of Conservative government.
Of course, the elephant in the room is that, unless anything significant changes, it is unlikely that the Prime Minister will be able to see through any these plans.
True, there have been a couple of recent polls showed Labour’s lead waning. One recent Opinium poll showed Labour’s poll lead narrowed to 10 points, following his Net Zero announcements. But this soon appeared to be an anomaly, with the latest poll from Deltapoll showing Labour’s lead increased to 21 points.
Standing out from the crowd was, unfortunately for the Prime Minister, Nigel Farage, who quickly became one of the biggest draws and talking points of the entire conference. Party members descended on mass for selfies, and GB News ensured that one of the biggest questions of the day to Tory MPs was: “Would you have Nigel back in the party?”, to which the answer from several Tory MPs was an enthusiastic yes.
Of course, Farage is a massive figure of the right and has celebrity status, but the reception he received must highlight how large swathes of the party membership are frustrated by what they see as the Parliamentary Party’s failure to act in keeping with their own conservative values.
Take, for example, the thorny issue of immigration. The party membership want immigration down and the Conservatives insist that they are the party of border control and limited skilled immigration, yet they’ve presided over the highest levels of both illegal and legal immigration on record.
What’s the point in having Suella Braverman take to the stage and deliver a speech full of harsh sounding rhetoric, if the Prime Minister shows little interest in actually bringing migration levels down?
Another question asked is how can a Conservative Government that pledges the importance of allowing people to keep more of their own money, continue to maintain the highest tax burden in generations? As judged by Liz Truss’ reception, many feel wrongly or rightly that the current leadership has it completely wrong on this.
Then there were younger members frustrated with the apparent inaction on housing. How can the Prime Minister, whose wife described him as embodying the word ‘aspiration’, fail to even mention helping younger generations get onto the housing ladder in his keynote speech to conference?
Then, of course, there’s the small issue of green policies. Speaking to members, there is little confidence in the government’s pursuit of Net Zero targets, though there was some support for Prime Minister’s dilution of some of the more burdensome regulations – as well as frustration from the green-minded among the party.
More fundamentally, Rishi Sunak as leader is still seen by many as an undemocratic imposition that ignored members’ wishes, made worse by the Lord Cruddas’ quite astonishing – and unhelpful – call on donors to defund the party.
What’s clear is that the Prime Minister lacks the support he needs from the party faithful, without which it will be difficult to close the gap between the Conservatives and Labour. The party needs to decide who it wants to appeal to, and they need to do it now.
Currently, there is a sense that the party is resigned to defeat, which lends itself to ever more infighting and factionalism – with big hitters, including Liz Truss and Priti Patel quite obviously setting out where they believe the party should be.
To those watching from the outside, there’s a gaping lack of coherence, an absence of long-term vision to sell to the country (despite the Prime Minister standing behind a lectern saying there is one) and a sense that the party has all but given up on winning.
This attitude is rather self-defeating, particularly considering Keir Starmer has little more to offer than not being a Tory. But perhaps, at this stage, a loss is what the party needs.