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Marie Le Conte: Notes from a Birmingham funeral

The wake-like atmosphere at the conference was a grim backdrop to the prime minister's increasingly hysterical-sounding optimism. 

October 05 2022, 11.06am

How do you know that your political party is not doing well? For some, the proof is in the polling; for others, endless runs of bad headlines are the real portent of doom.

Having just returned from the Conservatives’ annual conference in Birmingham, I believe I can add a new ominous sign to the list.

How do you know that your political party really is not doing well? When a panel of three former special advisers and one serving MP turns to the token journalist to ask them for a touch of optimism about their party’s immediate future.

Though I hate to disappoint, I wasn’t able to come up with anything substantial. 

In truth, no one else was. During the day, activists, lobbyists and politicians went to panels where every other sentence started with “at risk of sounding depressing…”. In the evening, they gathered in the bars and tried, and failed, to turn their frowns upside down.

As with all forms of grief, everyone reacted differently. One MP said they were looking forward to the Prime Minister’s speech, grinning like a slightly malevolent Cheshire Cat. Another announced, with manic cheer, that the Tories probably should lose the next general election. “That means I’ll lose my seat but maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world!” they added, glass of wine firmly in hand.

At least those two bothered turning up. Drinks receptions, usually home to vast seas of parliamentarians, were half-full - or, at best, filled with hanger-ons. Many Rishi backers decided to stay home long ago; perhaps more interestingly, many others decided to cancel at the last minute.

After all, what’s the point? Over lunch on Tuesday, one former party strategist pointed out that one of Liz Truss’s problems is that she doesn’t seem to like the electorate very much. Voters can usually tell when that’s the case, and tend to behave accordingly - just ask Jeremy Corbyn.

It is probably possible to go further, and say that one of the Prime Minister’s flaws is that she quite obviously doesn’t really care about her own colleagues. 

It is a bit of a surprise; while Johnson’s rise largely happened away from the green benches, Truss is, in theory, a proper parliamentarian. She has been in the Commons for over a decade, served at all levels in a number of departments, and spent many years speaking on the rubber chicken circuit. How is she so bad at managing her own parliamentary party?

One theory is that her strong ideological bent was always more important to her than the Conservatives’ broad-churchiness. Another is that her last few jobs - foreign secretary; secretary of state for international trade - took her away from SW1 for so long that she is no longer in touch with it.

Or maybe it is that she genuinely doesn’t care. That would at least explain the yawning gulf between her platform - one of increasingly hysterical-sounding optimism - and the crushing pessimism on display everywhere else.

The atmosphere in Birmingham, one man of the cloth pointed out, felt akin to a wake. Sure, people were genuinely happy to catch up with their acquaintances and share a drink - or seven - but, deep down, everyone knew the occasion wasn’t a happy one.

The usual wonkish bickering about policy also felt hollow, as everyone knew it was largely academic. No10 is obviously not going to listen and, even if it did, it would probably botch the delivery somehow. Listening to certain fringe debates felt like being at the conference of a party deep into opposition, as opposed to one topping off 12 years in power with the largest majority in a generation.

In an unusual twist for a Conservative gathering, the one silver lining came from the rail unions. National strikes on Wednesday meant that many people decided to go home on Tuesday instead, missing the leader’s speech in the process. Few of them seemed especially sad about it. “Ah, I definitely would have stayed another day”, some said with barely concealed grins, “but well, what can you do”.

The problem is: there isn’t much to be done. Liz Truss has many flaws but being two-faced isn’t one of them; she never hid her views or pretended to be anyone else. Conservative MPs chose her as one of their candidates and Conservative members, egged on by Conservative-backing newspapers, put her in Downing Street.

The party and their backers spent the summer making their bed; over those four unhappy days in Birmingham, they finally got to lie in it. Actions have consequences. Who knew?