If you want to better understand the situation at Conservative Party Conference this year, imagine a family who have a dramatic, Albert Square-level meltdown at each other on around December 23rd. No one wants to go ahead with Christmas Day and pretend to be merry, but cancelling it would look terrible, and mum’s already bought the turkey, so on we go.
All Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng will have been asking MPs is to keep the faith and please at least pretend to be a happy family for a few days. But so far, this plea is falling on deaf ears. It takes a lot for the Conservatives to publicly go to war with each other. There are coups aplenty, but the backstabbing normally happens behind the scenes, unlike with Labour, who too often air their dirty laundry in public. Not this time though. Former Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove condemned the budget in strong terms yesterday, while Nadine Dorries took to social media to criticise Liz Truss for allegedly throwing her Chancellor under the bus, and then Grant Shapps swept in as well to call the Government ‘tin eared’. The situation got bad enough that Party Chairman Jake Berry felt it necessary to state that any Budget rebels will lose the whip. Eesh.
Critical mass has been hit; the Government clearly think it is time to act. Enter a tweet from the Chancellor this morning announcing that the planned tax cut for the country’s highest earners is being scrapped. A huge, flagship policy, in the bin only a few weeks into the new Government’s lifespan. This is unprecedented, and Kwasi Kwarteng has been doing the media round this morning to explain himself, and getting absolutely savaged in the process.
Liz Truss’ weird style of long pauses and punctuation in the wrong places is starting to seem preferable. Because with Truss, interviews seem stilted and robotic, but they don’t sound like things are about to descend into fisticuffs any moment. “You’re not listening!’ snarled Kwasi at Nick Robinson, during his interview on the Today programme. This is after the Chancellor began the interview by arguing about whether Robinson’s preamble was fair (it seemed pretty factual to our ears), and jumping in correct him on issues like how long ago the mini budget was – “9 days”, snapped Kwasi, after Robinson had mentioned a fortnight. Gotcha.
The Chancellor is in an unenviable position, especially given Truss so explicitly stood by the policy live on the television yesterday morning. It would be hard to make this all sound un-chaotic, and it is interesting that this decision is being so definitively owned by Kwarteng, not the Prime Minister. He is the one who made the statement on the u-turn, he is the one being sent out to defend it. If Truss’ plan is to make Kwarteng the sacrificial lamb, he his baa-ing along obediently so far, and trotting off to the slaughter house while mumbling mutinously about what a weasel Nick Robinson is.
The day’s turmoil makes Kwasi Kwarteng’s speech later today hideously awkward. He will be hoping for a ripple of polite applause, while in the back of his mind wondering if it’s possible he’ll get booed. The best angle Kwarteng could strike would be the humble approach. The Chancellor did listen to backbench anger, he is willing to back down, he does understand when a policy has become untenable. That will be welcomed by his audience of MPs. Still not ideal though is it, for your first speech as Chancellor to be about how, after unveiling policies that threaten to implode the economy and give your opponents a 33 point poll lead, you’re at least willing to u-turn. Kwarteng will need to find a way to sound both defiant and humble, like he has a plan, but also that he is willing to change course when needed. A feat of speech making is needed to pull off this paradoxical narrative, but from the evidence we have seen so far, it seems unlikely Kwarteng has that in him.
So welcome to day 2 in this Eastenders’ Christmas Special of a Conference. If you can think of any previous Tory Conference so full of anger, melodrama, and open warfare, do send us your suggestions, but from where we are standing, this is unprecedented mayhem. Buckle in.