It’s hard to explain the end-of-days vibe at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Government loyalists declared that this re-incarnation of Margaret Thatcher was not for turning on cutting the top rate of tax. Fast forward 12 hours to the mother of allU- turns.
Normally when a government backtracks, there’s some kind of pay-off. Not this time. People all over the country are having sleepless nights about their mortgages. This is not your average Westminster bubble story. Everyone is talking about it. I’m not sure people will forgive or forget this anxiety.
And it’s clear that Tory MPs don’t either. It was remarkable how few turned up to conference. Those who did were reluctant to go on the record, but in the bars and receptions they sang like canaries. There was a sense of impending doom and real anger. “Well, it’s over for me at the next election. It’s over for all of us,” one MP told me glumly. Another described the dilemma he faced at the prospect of being offered a ministerial job. “I’ve wanted to be in a government since I was a teenager … but this one?”
Others were furious at colleagues who had accepted senior jobs. One normally very eloquent MP blasted Cabinet colleagues as “utter bellends” for defending the indefensible. Former Tory MP and minister Nick Boles, who described the current leadership as “clever fools” who were so certain of their ideological brilliance that they wouldn’t stop to listen or consult with others.
He said that while he may not have agreed with Boris Johnson, he was no fool. And there was a lot of chatter about the former Prime Minister. Could he make a comeback?
This implosion may have come too early for Johnson, who still faces investigation by the Commons privileges committee, but his name hung in the air. Especially in the hall when delegates watched some of the least-inspiring speeches known to mankind. At one point I wanted to pop a mirror under the noses of people around me to check they were still with us.
Boles also told me that the party was entering its equivalent of the Corbyn years, although he felt the current Tory leadership was in fact more extreme. He says he’s voting Labour at the next election. It is definitely the case that, like Corbyn, Liz Truss is deeply unpopular and is going to face an almighty ugly fight with her own backbenchers. They are going to try to thwart her at every twist and turn, led by their new shop steward Michael Gove, right, the Mick Lynch of rebellious Tory MPs; he’s just as articulate, spirited, and like catnip for the media.
I have had my disagreements with Tory MPs, especially on Brexit, but hope this could be the moment when decent individuals put their country over party loyalty at a moment of economic peril.
We all want to grow the pie but that doesn’t mean incinerating it, setting the oven on fire, and burning down the whole house. And I say that as a truly appalling cook.
My parents came down from Glasgow to visit me recently. They were meant to stay for a few days then go to a big fat Indian wedding in Essex. Except my poor dad suddenly collapsed on my kitchen floor and ended up at the cardiac unit at King’s College Hospital. That was two weeks ago. My dad and mum are stuck in London, far from home.
The whole thing is frightening and disorientating. I have never had to experience anything like this, and for all my bluster I feel useless and lost. But I have never felt more grateful for the NHS. From the minute the ambulance came (very swiftly) to our daily visits to see my dad in hospital, knowing he is in good hands, is a blessing. And the staff — especially the nurses — are incredible. Patient, kind, energetic and cheery — everything exhausted, strung-out family members are not. It may not be perfect but I have never treasured the NHS more, or those who serve it.