Boris Johnson does not fear Labor. His biggest problem will be his own party activists | Katy’s balls
When Conservative activists gather in Manchester over the coming week, the country may be in crisis with fuel shortages and warnings that Christmas is under threat, but for the first time in five years, the Conservative Party is not in crisis.
Because of Covid, the last time the Tories gathered for their annual meeting was in 2019, before Johnson’s landslide election victory. At the time, the UK’s exit from the EU was uncertain and an election was looming that could oust the Tories from power. The previous two lectures were defined by the mess of years Theresa May. In 2017, the party witnessed its disastrous conference speech, and the event the following year was defined by opposition to its Brexit deal and speculation about who might replace it.
Now things are much calmer. “We are leading in the polls and the prime minister is in a good position,” said a government adviser, predicting a rather static, perhaps boring, affair.
“It’s a mid-term conference when politics start to return to normal,” says one MP, who believes many members “will just go online rather than travel 200 miles to get there. It’s probably a safer option with the fuel shortage anyway.
Even ministers find it bizarre that the party is voting comfortably ahead of Labor at a time when the country is at a standstill. This week’s Labor conference didn’t really send the chills down to Downing Street. On the contrary, it was seen as a welcome distraction from the fuel crisis.
In addition to sharing online banners criticizing Angela Rayner’s comments suggesting the Tories were scum, MPs took to their Tory WhatsApp group to criticize Keir Starmer’s speech – poking fun at the Labor leader for its duration 90 minutes and the fact that he didn’t mention any of the Labor subway mayors, like Andy Burnham, by name. “He’s too insecure for, he knows they’re going around in circles,” said one conservative.
With no opposition to fear at the moment, the plan is to use the four-day conference to kick off Boris Johnson‘s national agenda with a focus on the NHS, crime and jobs. Covid has dominated Johnson’s first year after the general election, and his team want to shift the conversation to the recovery and the issues he campaigned on during the election campaign.
“Delivery” is the word of the day. With two or three years to go until the next election, time is running out to show that Johnson can add muscle to current empty slogans like ‘take it to the next level’.
So will Johnson’s first in-person conference since winning an 80-plus majority be a happy affair? The Prime Minister is in an optimistic position – spurred on by the cabinet reshuffle and his recent trip to the United States. It is about making the speech of his leader different from the others, more like a rally. But too much has happened in both Covid and No. 10 since this result for the party to be in the festive mood we would have imagined in 2019.
Plus, there’s still plenty of room for things to go wrong: No 10 took a very passive approach to conference planning this year. And the reshuffle means that many ministers will speak for the first time about their memory in many side meetings.
The government is very nervous about the coming cost of living crisis – exacerbated by a combination of higher taxes, reduced universal credit, labor shortages, disruption in supply and risk inflation.
Even if the fuel crisis is easing as hoped, it is only seen as one of the problems – with energy prices and driver shortages being long-term problems with no easy solution. Any trigger-friendly conference performance could offend an upset audience.
But given that the poll’s lead has so far been so indentible, Johnson’s biggest problem could be his own activists. While it is fortunate that the party is comfortably in power, you only need to talk to a handful of supporters to get worried about its current leadership. Under Johnson, the Tories are moving left on the economy – and the tax hike to pay off the NHS backlog and social care has been accepted by Tory MPs with a lack of enthusiasm. They supported it because the Prime Minister was attached to it and had the power to pass it. all that.
Ministers complain that they did not enter politics to raise taxes. Some are set to do so publicly, with Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of three cabinet ministers to speak out against the idea, saying on the eve of the conference that Britain is already taxed “as heavily as the country can afford”.
A four-day meeting in which low-tax think tanks and true blue activists turn up in droves has the potential to be rather murderous for a conservative prime minister who appears to have little ideology. “Being anti-conservative and raising taxes is becoming a much bigger problem,” says a senior Conservative official. Add to that all the stimulating mentions of net zero carbon emissions and expect basic questions about the cost.
The Prime Minister’s first conference since winning that majority finds him in a stronger position than a year ago, when Covid dominated the agenda. But in order for him to galvanize his support, it would be wise, when he takes the stage, to answer a question that his deputies and activists ask themselves too often these days: what is his Conservative party for?