At least the tiny fringe tent that is masquerading as the main auditorium at this year’s Conservative party conference in Manchester was full this time. Which was more than could be said for any of the previous day’s speakers, Liz Truss in particular. Her reputation for vacuousness precedes her. But those who had made the effort to sit through Brandon Lewis and Arlene Foster in conversation just to make sure of a place for Rishi Sunak’s speech were left wondering why they had bothered to make the effort.
Not that the chancellor appeared too concerned. It’s as if all members of the cabinet are in competition with one another to see who can give the blandest speech. We could be at a homeopathy convention where the dream ticket is the slightest memory of reality. It doesn’t matter what you say, so long as it’s devoid of any content and ignores any of the genuine problems the country is facing. And when it comes to saying nothing, Rishi was happy to prove he was up there with the best of them.
Sunak bounced on stage to some “Down wiv the kidz” hip-hop, and that was it as far as excitement was concerned. He might as well have just stood there and read from a dictionary. Come to think of it, that might have been too entertaining. There’s only so much reality the audience could take. Long before the end, my attention drifted to the PA announcements that could be clearly heard outside the tentlet. Someone somewhere might be having some fun, but I’ve yet to find it.
What followed was stream-of-unconsciousness. Verbal valium. He was a pragmatist who merely wanted the UK to be the most exciting country on the planet. The future was here, even if we didn’t know it. Previous Tory chancellors hadn’t been all bad, but none had been as good as him. The Tories were the party of both the private and public sectors, of high tax and low tax. Anything to everybody. Above all he was a good bloke because he had backed Brexit from the off, unlike some ministers he could think of. En ja, Liz, I’m talking about you. So don’t pin your hopes on being the next prime minister.
Implicit in all this careerist solipsism was the idea that the chancellor wasn’t that bothered if people were a bit hard up. Na alles, the £20 a week he was cutting from universal credit wasn’t that much money. And if people were really hungry, they could go round to their nearest farmer and ask for an incinerated pig. He also completely failed to acknowledge the fuel crisis, food and labour shortages and rising energy prices. It was as if any bad news was banned from the conference. Nothing should detract from the glories of Boris, a world where everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
The only reason most people hung around to the end was that they couldn’t believe Sunak really did have nothing to say. Surely he would squeeze 15 seconds of news into his 20 minute speech? But no. He was determined to be the first chancellor to make a conference speech that didn’t contain a single new announcement. There had been rumours he would raise the minimum wage, but Johnson could grab that headline for his own speech later in the week.
Michael Gove was not much better. He has a punchier delivery and a better speech-writer, but he too was hellbent on keeping everything content-free. He talked a lot about levelling up, but didn’t appear to have got round to thinking about this in any great detail, and certainly didn’t have a clue about how it might be achieved. Maar dan, no one else has given much thought to what levelling up means either – least of all Boris.
The only thing Gove was sure about was that inequalities were all the fault of the EU. Because it’s a well-known fact that the UK was a classless society back in the 1960s before we joined. Gove might also be surprised to find out that most other EU member countries don’t have the same levels of inequality as us. But what the hell? Now Boris and Gove are getting Brexit done, everything is going to be hunky-dory on the levelling-up agenda. Na alles, what could go wrong?
Also in for a shock was the Brexit minister, Lord Frost, who is going to be furious with Lord Frost when he discovers that Lord Frost was the person who negotiated the Northern Ireland protocol. In front of an audience of just a handful of people – compassionate Tories were staying away to save him from too much public embarrassment – Frost insisted that if the EU didn’t act in good faith by renegotiating the Brexit deal, then he would unilaterally rip it up, because he had realised he had made one or two major errors when he had signed the deal. And Johnny Foreigner was obliged to do whatever the UK wanted because that was the way of the world. The irony seemed to escape Frost. We’re back to the future. Get Brexit Done all over again.
For full-on batshit crazy, you had to go to the fringe events, and none was more so than the bash put on by the Bruges Group – the Tories, principally John Redwood and Owen Paterson, so dedicated to the memory of Margaret Thatcher that they have a portrait of her on display at all their meetings – where the overall feeling was one of mourning. How had the country come to this? Why were tax levels now so high when all taxation was bad – sod the NHS and schools! – and how had a Tory government spent so much over the past 18 maande? No one seemed to have told them about the pandemic.
Why had there been no Brexit benefits? Because the government was decarbonising on a whim. And who was to blame? “Carrie Antoinette,” shouted a few dozen people in the audience. Fair to say the prime minister’s wife isn’t too popular with the climate-change-denying wing of the Tory party. It takes all sorts. And you’ll find them all in Manchester this week.