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MANCHESTER, England — Britain’s Conservatives are willing themselves to believe in Boris Johnson’s optimism and no one wants to burst the bubble — yet.
The prime minister will address his party faithful in Manchester Wednesday, the grand finale of the Tories’ first in-person conference since their stunning electoral victory in 2019.
There were plenty of reasons to be fearful. The gathering occurred as the U.K. is gripped by supply chain issues, labor shortages, rising energy prices, a cut to welfare and the end of the furlough scheme which has paid the wages of millions of workers unable to do their jobs during the pandemic. As a result, the country could be on the verge of losing the economic advantage it gained from its early rollout of coronavirus vaccines.
On top of that there’s a run on fuel, which now appears to be easing but has undoubtedly been uncomfortable for the government. A minister helping to coordinate the response to petrol shortages said they had sent their spouse to fill up the tank ahead of conference because they didn’t want to be seen at the pumps.
The party’s top brass braced for a backlash over a planned tax rise and long wait times for medical appointments.
In spite of all that, gin and tonics flowed, almost no one wore masks and the mood was buoyant. One newly elected MP said it “almost feels like a post-election get-together,” pointing out that it was the first conference since the Tories gained 107 new MPs at the 2019 election. Delegates delighted in being back partying in person and one business lobbyist speculated that some older members had stayed away, leaving the young to pack out the bars.
A senior party activist said with a nod to Brexit and the vaccine rollout: “If you look at the macro-level things are really good … And if you look forward and think we’re going to win the next election you can feel pretty good.”
As for Johnson himself, his relentless sunny outlook continues to boost the party. In the words of one Cabinet minister: “His optimism is infectious, and he will overcome all the fuel and supply chain issues. I’ve wholeheartedly drunk the Kool-Aid on Boris Johnson.”
That Kool-Aid has become something of a rallying cry. Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt told a group of Young Conservatives: “The faultline in politics at the moment is not between left and right but between optimists and pessimists. We need optimists for the next tough shift.”
Trust me, I’m the chancellor
The case for optimism against the odds also rests on Chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose role in keeping the party onside is both pivotal and precarious. His speech on Monday was the first event to see long lines for a seat, in contrast to Sunday’s appearance by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, another true blue favorite.
Sunak acknowledged the audacity of his own program, referring to tax rises as “un-Conservative.” But he went on to insist: “I’ll tell you what is un-Conservative: unfunded pledges, reckless borrowing and soaring debt. Yes, I want tax cuts. But in order to do that, our public finances must be put back on a sustainable footing.”
He asked the party to trust him and for now they took him at his word.
At a fringe event hosted by the TaxPayers’ Alliance, Tory MP Ben Bradley told delegates the pandemic meant that “low tax, small government is not really in the zeitgeist” but “there is only one party that’s going to fix that.”
He called attention to Sunak in particular, saying he is “a sound character and he gets it” — even suggesting it would be down to the chancellor to pull Johnson back towards core Conservative values.
Sunak and Johnson’s contract of trust on tax has provided cover for Cabinet ministers such as Truss and Jacob Rees-Mogg to publicly claim they are guardians of a low-tax economy, even as they back the prime minister while he introduces new levies. One bemused attendee dubbed this “Thatcherite cosplay.”
The outbreak of apparent unity is also underpinned by a change in the dynamic at the annual jamboree, which has in the past been electrified by the tension between the official front bench and the rabble-rousers on the sidelines.
For many years, Johnson’s conference speech as London mayor was the highlight, keenly watched for his rhetorical tubthumping and occasional side-eye at David Cameron. He reprised this attention-seeking act in 2018 after resigning as foreign secretary, taking the spotlight away from then Prime Minister Theresa May.
On the fringes, Home Secretary Priti Patel and Rees-Mogg were always two of the star draws, frequently pulling in large crowds and even starting the phenomenon called “Moggmania.” Now all of these populists are in the Cabinet and one of them is prime minister, something of the usual friction has been lost.
A year to deliver
Even with fair winds behind them, many Conservatives seem conscious that the waters could be choppier the next time they meet.
“As long as people are getting jobs and feel secure, it could be all right,” said one MP for a relatively deprived constituency. “It will be a problem if bills keep on rising.”
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“I would say people will give us a year,” a senior Tory predicted, pointing out that Sunak’s popularity had slipped back among party members and that his speech had been “more like something you’d expect to hear at a Google startup conference — not much that will resonate with normal people.”
It appears to be a message Johnson is alive to, with aides briefing that delivery will be at the heart of his speech on Wednesday.
If the party’s lovable troublemakers are now the ones holding the whip hand, the new insurgents are the ‘red wall‘ MPs. They might not drive devoted followings as individuals but they have been the ones to watch at fringe events, where they have not been afraid to go off-message.
MPs’ other big fear is that having agreed to raise money to pump into the NHS, voters will get restive if they do not see improvements in treatment. Members representing seats from across the country all said waiting times for GP appointments was the number one topic filling their postbags and inboxes, often a reliable indicator of trouble ahead.
Jonathan Gullis and Jack Brereton, who both represent Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, attacked Conservative Campaign Headquarters as “closed off” and out of touch with voters at an event run by the Decision Problem think tank on Monday.
Also causing some rumblings of unease is the party’s current relationship with the private sector, as both Sunak and Johnson set their sights on a higher-wage economy. Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph splashed on hostile soundings-off against industry, with one senior government source reported as saying firms were “drunk on cheap labor.”
Craig Beaumont from the Federation of Small Businesses described the government’s stance as “pretty horrifying — to some extent I suspect this is a game, because they have to blame someone.”
He added: “There’s a real worry about tax. The tax burden is going to be the highest it’s ever been for small businesses … For every job, you will pay basically 15 percent of that salary in national insurance.”
Perhaps the simplest explanation as to why none of these upsets seem to be causing the Tories any real grief at the moment is that they do not appear to have affected their standing in the country at large. The Conservatives are still ahead in the polls, on 40 percent to Labour’s 34 percent.
Asked why there had been no proper bunfights at conference, one former minister said: “As long as we’re winning, nobody cares.”
Annabelle Dickson and Matt Honeycombe-Foster contributed reporting.