MOVING ON OUT?
LCA Senior Advisor Paddy Hennessy gives us the lowdown on a ruling party in crisis at this year’s Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham.
‘THE WORLD’S biggest pantomime!’ proclaimed posters inside Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre, where the Conservatives were gathering this week for their annual conference.
The adverts were actually for a forthcoming ‘Christmas Arena Spectacular’ of Elf, ‘based on the hit movie’, but for most of the time it was impossible to ignore the comparison. “Look out Prime Minister – it’s behind you!” “She going to U-turn on the top rate of tax….Oh no, she isn’t…Oh yes, she is!”
The Tories arrived in Birmingham with voting intention polls showing them anywhere up to 33 points behind Labour, following a week in which their so-called ‘mini-Budget’, consisting of sweeping tax cuts and energy subsidies funded by borrowing and lacking any independent analysis of its costs, sparked mayhem in the markets. For days, the pound dropped, gilt yields and mortgage rates soared and stock markets went squiffy for days, forcing the Bank of England to step in, prop up pension funds and in the process restore some calm.
Expectations for the Birmingham bun-fight were set a low level: and it is fair say they were met.
On Sunday night, as a stream of receptions and dinners got going, ministers were loyally defending the decision to axe the 45p top tax rate. They were in good company – Liz Truss herself had done the same during her grilling by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg earlier in the day.
The only trouble was, as the claret began to flow, Ms Truss and her Chancellor were holed up in the PM’s hotel suite putting the finishing touches on the announcement of a U-turn, which was duly delivered as the markets opened on Monday.
This set the scene for an extraordinary couple of days as minister after minister used Fringe events and media interviews to attack each other in a frenzy of blue-on-blue conflict. At one point, Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, accused fellow MPs of staging a ‘coup’ over tax with the presumed intention of forcing the Prime Minister, in office for less than a month, out.
In the bars and restaurants there was a slightly unreal atmosphere. Younger delegates nervously asked veteran observers: “Is this what the 90s were like?” fearful of a similar fate to that suffered by John Major’s government, followed four Tory general election victories, only to melt down before the public’s eyes, ushering in Tony Blair and 13 years of Labour. There are obvious parallels: then, ‘Black Wednesday’ destroyed the Tories’ claim to economic competence and the Prime Minister was caught on-mic railing at the ‘bastards’ in his cabinet plotting his downfall.
This year in Birmingham, as delegates fretted over G&Ts and bottles of lukewarm Heineken inside the secure zone’s ‘ring of steel’, they could hear the protestors outside braying into megaphones and playing the Benny Hill theme through giant speakers.
There were some better moments. The Opportunity London dinner (co-hosted by New London Architecture, Mishcon de Reya and LCA) landed its second top speaker in two weeks, London Minister Paul Scully following in the footsteps of London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who had addressed the companion event at the Labour conference in Liverpool a week earlier.
Scully praised the Opportunity London campaign and gamely submitted himself to a Q&A which ranged widely over government policy and hopes of a better relationship between the capital and Downing Street compared to the past two years under former mayor Boris Johnson.
Even for the beleaguered Prime Minister, her keynote conference-closing conference speech provided some respite – Greenpeace protesters who somehow made it into the conference hall managed to rally the audience behind their leader as she vowed to ‘stay the course’ and sought to demonise a wide ‘anti-growth coalition’.
Still, many Tory delegates worried about being stranded because of a strike by train drivers, had left town on Tuesday night, and the audience for Ms Truss’s address seemed slightly sparse. Promising a ‘90s classic, she came on stage to M People’s Moving On Up (‘just like interest rates,’ joked a wag). On Wednesday lunchtime those who had stayed the course came blinking out of the NEC, seeking alternative means of transport for the journey home.
It was the Tories’ worst party conference for at least a generation. But as of writing there are almost certainly two years before the next general election and if there is a crumb of comfort for the Conservatives, it is that they have recovered from similarly tough political situations and gone on to win power many times in the past.
They will, however, have to hope that the seismic events of the last few weeks are a blip rather than a definitive direction of travel.