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The Tories Meet In Manchester Plagued By Their Delusions, Desperation And Divisions | Andrew Rawnsley

To Manchester for a tale of two Conservative conferences. The official one is taking place in the cavernous central convention complex under the snigger-inviting slogan: “Taking long-term decisions for a brighter future.” Rishi Sunak has just one extremely short-term goal this week: to persuade his party, the media and any voters bothering to pay attention to reconsider the assumption that a Tory defeat at the general election is a certainty. “It’s an unusually important conference for the leader,” remarks one former cabinet minister. “Rishi has got to put on a show.”

Many Tory MPs do not see brightness in their future. That’s not just because of serial byelection losses and the hefty deficit in the opinion polls to Labour. Tory fatalism about their prospects is also sourced in despair that their leader has neither the appeal nor the acumen to turn things around. His personal approval ratings, which were not bad in the circumstances when he took over after the madness of Liz Truss, have plummeted to dire levels.

Number 10 will count this conference as a success if their days in Manchester lift Tory morale and put a dent into the consensus that defeat for the Conservatives is inevitable. They’d love to hear lots of people echoing the cabinet loyalists who cry: “Don’t write off Rishi yet.”Mr Sunak’s preferred narrative for this gathering, that it is still possible for him to engineer a Tory recovery, is menaced by the other Conservative conference. This will take place on the fringe where the competing factions of an ideologically splintered party will jostle for the attention of the media and their activists.

“Can the Tories win?” is the topic of one fringe meeting, not a question a party so accustomed to power usually feels compelled to ask itself. “Can the centre-right survive?” is the plangent title of another scheduled discussion about their future. The uncontrite ghost of Bad King Boris is staying away from Manchester, one small mercy for Downing Street. The unrepentant spirit of Mad Queen Liz will be haunting the place, telling anyone who will listen she was right all along.

Number 10 has good reason to be angsty that the united and confident display it wants to stage may be sabotaged by noises off. The prime minister abandoned the idea of a September reshuffle of the government out of fright that ex-ministers whom he’d just fired would wander the conference corridors gnashing their grievances and telling everyone they met how utterly useless their leader is. He won’t be able to prevent the party’s rival factional mobs coming out to rumble about the direction of the party. Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman, Penny Mordaunt and other contenders who crave the Tory crown will be tempted to audition for the role and send come-hither messages to the party’s activists and the rightwing media. “I hope there won’t be too much of that,” shudders one cabinet member. “Suella and the other leadership candidates will be preening about,” sighs a senior Tory from the party’s diminished moderate wing. If they push it too far, “it will be damaging for Rishi”. The nightmare scenario for Number 10 is that its attempt to project the prime minister as a man with an action plan to stay in government is occluded by naked competition between the wannabes to take over the Tories in opposition. That would confirm to the world that the Conservatives are in a doom loop spiralling towards defeat.

When he became leader, Mr Sunak reckoned that the path to rehabilitation was to present himself as a calm and competent break with the bedlam of Ms Truss and the debaucheries of Mr Johnson. The hope in Number 10 was that he would ultimately get some credit for fixing the mess that he inherited. This rather depended on voters forgetting that it was a stramash of his own party’s creation, but it was the best plan available to him. It still is, really. Bar Labour committing an unexpectedly catastrophic error, the Conservatives’ most credible chance of recovery is an improvement to the economic climate. That they could use as a platform to argue Britain has turned the corner. Inflation getting back towards target, interest rates passing their peak, an uptick in growth: those ingredients might not be sufficient to save the Tories, but a more benign outlook for living standards would enhance their chances of limiting their election losses.

Mr Sunak bet on this route in the early phase of his time at Number 10 when he laid out his five “priorities”, the majority of them about the economy. My conclusion about the turmoil we’ve witnessed over recent weeks is that the prime minister has lost faith in what was his core strategy. The man who once projected himself as Steady Sunak is now adopting the persona of Risky Rishi.

He’s gone on the attack. The novelty is that the attack has been concentrated not on Labour, but on the record of his Conservative predecessors. In the run-up to this conference, he has shredded key components of his party’s previous commitments to achieving net zero. There have been hints so heavy that the government might as well have confirmed that he wants to amputate the northern leg of HS2. What a cunning plan to ignite a fierce dispute about scrapping high-speed rail to Manchester when their party conference is meeting in the north-west’s largest city. “He’s fucking terrible at politics,” groans one former cabinet minister. This, by the way, is not a dispossessed Johnsonite or Trussite speaking. Those words come from a senior Tory who backed Mr Sunak to become leader.

The prime minister has been trapped in an excruciating cycle of pre-conference interviews in which he has been reduced to swerving questions about the fate of HS2 by trying to change the subject to road maintenance. There’s gift-wrapped ammunition for his opponents about 13 years of Conservative government: we’re incapable of delivering high-speed rail, but we’ll try to be better at filling in potholes.

His people have tried to sell what they call “resets” on net zero and HS2 as demonstrations that a hard-headed prime minister is bravely grasping thorny issues by abandoning unrealistic and unaffordable ambitions bequeathed to him by vainglorious predecessors. That’s quite the indictment of the four Conservative prime ministers who preceded him at Number 10. If Mr Sunak’s intention is to create electoral “wedge issues”, he’s certainly done that. But the dividing lines he has drawn attention to are the ones splitting his own party. Some of the angriest voices about the retreats on net zero belong to green-minded Conservatives. Some of the most furious opposition to tearing up high-speed rail comes from big Tory names who favour bold infrastructure projects, such as Michael Heseltine and George Osborne who condemned it as “an act of huge economic self-harm”.

A series of Tory donors are noisily slamming shut their chequebooks. The boss of the Iceland supermarket chain, Richard Walker, quit the party with a lacerating attack on Mr Sunak for “flip-flopping” while declaring that Britain is “in a considerably worse state” for 13 years of Conservative rule. John Caudwell, the founder of Phones4U and the largest donor to the Conservatives before the last election, condemned the “madness” of the U-turns on green policies. Philip Harris, the founder of Carpetright, a Conservative peer and one of the most generous contributors to Tory coffers in the past, has declared that the party does not “deserve” another term in power. Mr Sunak has made enemies of people who were once his party’s most stalwart friends.

When Number 10 sanctioned Cruella Braverman’s latest horrid speech, with its sinister talk of migration posing an “existential challenge” to western civilisation, the humane wing of the Tory party reacted with horror. Permitting the home secretary to go the full nasty and ripping up commitments made by his Tory predecessors at Number 10 does not amount to offering a positive vision of the country’s future. From what Number 10 has been telling us, Mr Sunak’s notions about what he would do with a fifth Tory term is an eclectic stable of hobby-horses. These include slashing inheritance tax, a “crackdown” on parking charges, moving in the direction of a total ban on smoking, replacing A-levels with a baccalaureate and (this we’ve heard before) making maths compulsory to the age of 18. This is not a coherent political philosophy. It is an expression of the prime minister’s pet likes and hates. This is not a refreshment of Conservatism. Nor is it a mission for government. And it most definitely does not amount to long-term decisions for a brighter future.

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