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Boris Johnson will haunt this Tory feast

If Johnson does decide to turn up in Manchester, it would stop Rishi Sunak's reboot in its tracks

Image: The New European/Getty

The Conservative Party has one overarching aim: to win elections. On some occasions, the prevailing views of the electorate might mean that broader ambitions may be accommodated under that arch, but the extent to which the party would, in pursuit of victory, be prepared to ditch apparently key policies or adopt those that had previously seemed untenable, should never be underestimated. 

“We’re in it to win it,” is a core Conservative Party principle. And no one can now have any doubt that what the party wants to win is election victory, not the war against climate change. 

As the party’s high command prepares to head to Manchester for this year’s conference, mammoth effort will have been put into dredging up ideas that will get Conservative voters salivating. Policies that might help lift the UK out of the difficulties in which it now finds itself, or protect future generations from climate disasters are of lesser importance. 

Rishi Sunak’s volte-face on greenery has not only incensed the House of Commons Speaker, who should by now be resigned to the government’s habit of making major policy announcements to the camera rather than the House of Commons. It has also upset the Tory MPs who actually take climate change seriously. 

But it was what core Tory voters wanted to hear. As the Daily Mail headline screamed: “Finally! Common Sense on Net Zero”.

The conference is likely to be peppered with similar Mail-pleasing messages on immigration, benefits and crime. Some of these messages will be explicit: Suella Braverman does not do subtle. Others will be a gentle blow on the dog whistle, for instance complaints about the cost of incapacity benefits, code, as far as the Mail interpreters of Tory-speak are concerned, for “it’s time to crack down on scroungers”. 

Sunak is no different to Boris Johnson in his willingness to pander to the right wing factions in his party, hoping they will help him to cling to power. Yet Johnson – the man he brought down – is not going to make it easy for Sunak. 

He has already criticised Sunak’s change of policy on climate, no doubt encouraged by his environmentally-conscious wife, and he might yet dominate the conference. 

If Johnson does decide to turn up in Manchester and address one of the numerous fringe meetings, that would suck all the oxygen out of Sunak’s attempted reboot. For despite his numerous well-demonstrated failings, Johnson still has the hearts of many Tory voters in a way that Sunak never will. 

Another Sunak critic, his immediate predecessor Liz Truss, has already been practising the line that she will be peddling in Manchester. Her lecture to the Institute for Government was remarkable for its towering self-belief, despite a disastrous 49-day reign in which she tanked markets and was outshone by a lettuce. 

But Truss is unusual in so many ways, not least her obsession with pig meat. Her speech extolling her delight in “opening up new pork markets” has assumed legendary status, but there was not a hint of irony when she told the IFG that she might have failed to prepare the ground sufficiently for her “fiscal event”. In her words, “I didn’t just try to fatten the pig on market day, I tried to rear the pig and slaughter it as well.”

The farmers may not flock to her fringe meeting, but the Tories who still believe that low taxes are the answer to any question will assure her an enthusiastic audience. 

In the days when the political parties held their conferences by the sea, taking it in turns to grace Bournemouth, Brighton and Blackpool with their presence, there was an air of jollity about proceedings. I was a regular attendee at both Labour and Conservative gatherings. (Apologies to the Liberal Democrats but I could never quite make the case to justify that third week out of the office.) 

If you were lucky, there was the chance of an extra burst of late summer sunshine during a few days at the coast but, whatever the weather, there was always ample gossip and enough good copy to keep an editor satisfied. 

More recently, however, the dynamics of the conference, particularly the Conservative one, have changed. Party membership has been decimated and, even among those who continue to pay their subscriptions, the willingness to fork out for a mediocre hotel well away from the conference centre has been largely lacking. 

Increasingly, the lack of members at the conference has been compensated for by businesses keen to cosy up to the politicians and, more importantly, prepared to pay heavily for the privilege. This year’s Conservative conference may struggle to attract many of them. Businesses may reason that there is little point in investing in an outgoing government. 

The special programme laid on to entice them may have limited appeal. They will be welcomed by Lord Johnson of Lainston. This is Dominic Johnson, the minister for investment, an apt title for someone who was the co-founder of Somerset Capital Management along with Jacob Rees-Mogg. 

If the boss of a struggling small manufacturer were to stumble into the Business Day proceedings on October 2, he could be forgiven for thinking that it was a club with limited membership. That is what the Tory Party has become. But Sunak & Co will be using every weapon they can employ to persuade voters that it is the club they must support.

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