Tory party conference: The surreal wake of a tired party soundtracked by protest
This year's Conservative party conference is a flat and sad event where supporters have either given up, or simply not showed up.
It’s always a strange experience, with MPs, political professionals and supporters who take time off work to hear speeches all descending on a city for four days. The experience is not unlike a political Glastonbury, though with far more suits.
Heading from reception to fringe, from speech to party, the whole event is soundtracked by loud protesters who line the streets by the exit, but can be heard constantly inside the secure zone. Walking out I’ve heard numerous passers-by joke “they’re protected inside, we can get them when they come out”. Manchester does not feel welcoming to Conservatives, something made worse by the HS2 debacle.
Inside the venue, the hall is lined with stands from different companies hoping to garner favour from those in power, and large media booths with those aiming to hold them to account. But this year, it seems there is decidedly less money being spent, with Britain’s corporate world well aware this is possibly the last Tory conference with the party in Government.
Even attendance feels down, if not in total, but in age demographic, which fits with all the polling showing young voters turning against the party.
Speaking to young Tories who either supported or actually worked for the party, they spoke of Brexit, transphobia and a failure to build houses as reasons they and their friends were disillusioned. More than one said they would not be voting Conservative next year.
That is the general feel of this conference. Last year felt like the end of Rome with MPs staying away as Liz Truss’s premiership crashed and burned – unfortunately not quite as quickly as the British economy. This year feels like the damage has been done, with disgruntled supporters talking of who could replace Mr Sunak, who would be best to lead the party in opposition.
These conversations are not limited to attendees, with numerous Tory MPs staying away, either because they’re standing down, don’t believe the party can win or, as one told me, they’d “rather be tortured than put themselves through conference”.
This disillusionment carries on through the numerous fringes, receptions and parties that take place here, with gallows humour from activists knowing the end was near. One event I attended saw David Gauke, a man booted out the party for his pro-Europe stance, deliver a speech on the impact of Brexit. His comments were met with shouts of “rubbish” from one older man in attendance, but applause by the room while jokes about how severely the Tories will lose garnered repeated laughs.
This laughter was repeated following Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s speech on Monday, which I watched with several friends from a right-wing think-tank. They pointed out nothing announced was new, and that in past years the adviser to the Chancellor would be mobbed by journalists after a speech, all chasing detail. This year, there was absolutely nothing to seek clarity on.
If last year felt like the end of Ms Truss, there is a shared feeling this is the end of the Conservative party in Government.
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