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Dogmatic, desperate and out of ideas: Manchester was the Tories’ last hurrah


What does the prospect of losing power mean for a party that feels it was born to rule? That question has been haunting the Conservatives for almost two years, ever since Boris Johnson’s administration started to unravel with the Owen Paterson and Partygate scandals in late 2021 – the period when a probably decisive proportion of voters began to conclude that they had had enough of Tory government for now.

These have been frantic years for the party, full of policy U-turns, the emergence of new factions, leadership contests, cabinet reshuffles, changes of political strategy and increasingly desperate promises to voters – such as Rishi Sunak’s this week to end “30 years” of “broken” politics and “fundamentally change our country”.

Yet despite all this activity, all these acknowledgements that the Tories are in trouble, they seem not to have got fully used yet to their new political situation: as a widely disliked, at least temporarily declining force, on a downward trajectory that may not end at the election. The scale of Sunak’s latest pledge, and of many others made at the Conservative conference this week, from the fringe to the main stage, suggests a party that still thinks it can do anything if it really tries.

The last time a period of Tory rule ended was so long ago, in the late 90s, that since becoming MPs, most leading Tory politicians, from Sunak to Suella Braverman to Liz Truss, have known nothing but Tory or Tory-dominated governments. The party has also operated in an even more favourable media environment than usual, with the Tory press in a particularly tribal phase, new rightwing broadcasters starting up, reactionaries busy on social media and the previously troublesome BBC often cowed or compromised by Conservative appointees. By bullying other independent institutions such as the civil service, bending or breaking the law and Westminster conventions, and making it harder for anti-Tory sections of the electorate such as the young to vote, the Conservatives have further concentrated power in themselves. For 13 years they have brazenly demonstrated why they are one of the most ruthless parties in the democratic world.

But in the end it hasn’t worked. This week’s party conference was sickly with signs of power draining away: a thin attendance, fewer corporate exhibitors, a shrunken hall for the main speeches, and empty spaces all round the cavernous Manchester Central convention complex. Sometimes, only the number of police there and in the surrounding streets made it clear that this was a gathering of a governing party and not a frustrated opposition.

Even the fact that the conference happened before the Labour one, rather than vice versa, which is the customary arrangement, felt like a demotion for the Conservatives – although the switch was actually caused by Labour venue-booking problems. Instead of the Tories, Labour will get the last word.

There is also a hint of defeat in the Conservatives’ clunky new slogan, “long-term decisions for a brighter future”, with its implication that in the shorter term the government’s policies are not going to be appreciated. For a party that has so often relied on pre-election booms and tax cuts, and other cynical last-minute manoeuvres, to start talking about the long term is an inadvertent admission of failure.