A political sketch from the Conservative Party conference
At the end of a busy week, one leader in Manchester stands tall with his reputation enhanced, confirmed at the height of his powers, overseeing a team of prodigious talent. But enough about Pep Guardiola, we have to get through the Tory Party conference first.
In his leader’s speech, prime minister Boris Johnson told us that science had saved capitalism, praising the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine for rescuing “our open society and free market economy”. This sermon on the vaccine concluded that blessed are the wealth-creators, for they shall see value added to their tech investment portfolio.
The speech saw Johnson at his after-dinner best, mixing Latin puns with double entendre alongside some cod theory of how restricted immigration and a high-wage economy would lead to lower taxes. Perhaps the post-Brexit plan is no longer Singapore-on-Thames but to make the UK more like Switzerland, where a packet of Oreo cookies in Aldi costs in the region of £5.
At least the shelves in Aldi Suisse are probably full, should you be able to afford anything there. Johnson failed to mention the collapsing UK energy market, the fuel shortages, the rising inflation, and the cuts to universal credit that were coming into effect as he took to the stage in Manchester. Rather, there was a lot of boosterish blather about levelling up, and jokes about “John Bon Govey” dancing in an Aberdeen disco to demonstrate that it was now safe to mix indoors again.
There was repeated mention of “the magic potion” from the University of Oxford, which has enabled the economy to open and the Conservatives once again to meet cheek by jowl. There was no mention of the thousands of people dying each month from Covid-19.
“Skills, skills, skills,” said the prime minister, echoing the words of one of his predecessors about education. But he did not dwell on the topic, which was a blessing, since on the fringe no one has been talking about anything else.
Our “world-beating universities” are “one of the glories of our economy”, said Johnson, before saying they were not for everyone, as if higher education were an acquired taste, like lapsang souchong. We had a repeat of the claim that an extra £14 billion is being spent on education, which is only true if you add up all the extra money spent on education in each year between 2019/20 and 2022/23 without adjusting for inflation—the real increase in spending on primary and secondary schools is a much more modest £4.3bn.
Universities, of course, would kill for an extra £4.3bn, but Johnson seems to believe that being the science superpower he trumpeted this week—his speech name-checked “gene-editing, cyber and quantum”—can somehow involve waves of private sector investment without funding the academic base. Last time Johnson was in Manchester he pledged to double the science budget, a promise that was conspicuously absent this time round.
Other examples of levelling up cited by the prime minister included building urinals for HGV drivers, re-wilding beavers to “build back beaver” and clamping down on pet theft—a crime which apparently knows “no limits of depravity”.
The speech was given in one of the Manchester Central complex’s smaller auditoriums—nothing like the vistas of the great hall that Johnson spoke to the last time he was here. That might be a Covid thing; it might be the result of a hastily thrown together conference, but either way a performer should worry when they reach the point in their career when they start playing more intimate venues to connect with their fans.
There were rumours of an overflow room, in which party members could watch Johnson’s speech on a screen—it’s tough when you spend all that money on fees and end up getting lectured to on Zoom. But in truth some of the plenary sessions this week have been so poorly attended you would think they were a Champions League match at the Etihad stadium.
Elsewhere at the conference, there was much to delight the jaundiced observer of the politics of higher education. This included a public appearance by Michelle Donelan, whose official title is now minister for further education and higher education who attends cabinet.
That also meant that Donelan got to walk into Johnson’s speech with the rest of the cabinet to take front row seats. Positioned on the end of the row, she looked to this observer as if she could not make up her mind whether she was late for a wedding or early for a funeral.
As the cabinet settled down to listen to their mop-topped frontman, it was as if the rest of The Charlatans had decided to let Tim Burgess do an acoustic solo. Deputy PM Dominic Raab was on the sidelines, nodding along—very much the Bez of the Conservative Party.
One of the highlights of the conference was checking out Toby Young’s “free speech speakeasy” on Monday evening. Having given a fake name and email at the door—for who wants to receive third-party communications from companies approved of by the Free Speech Union—we discovered what the union’s £250 membership fees are being spent on.
The answer is a free bar in an Irish pub, or political lobbying as it may be written up in the annual report. Not that Toby himself managed to turn up while we were there, despite being advertised in the programme. Perhaps he had been cancelled.
The next day saw Brexit wideboy Darren Grimes face off against the University of Manchester’s professor of government practice Andy Westwood in the Institute of Economic Affairs and Taxpayers’ Alliance think tent. Manchester has not seen such a one-sided contest since Manny Pacquiao put Ricky Hatton down in the second round.
“Universities are only good for creating a new generation of the ultra-offended, who are somewhere to the left of Chairman Mao,” opined Grimes, who is probably best known for his time as a student at Brighton University, when his Brexit youth group BeLeave managed to spend over £675,000 on social media adverts. In some form of cosmic karma, he was actually filling in for Michelle Donelan, who had failed to show at the event.
Outside the conference complex, Brexit shouty man Steve Bray was putting in a shift, as he had last week in Brighton. This time he had a sound system and was dressed as a Soviet-era general—he may have been protesting about Russian influence in the Conservative Party.
As the sound system blared out the anthem of the Soviet Union, we could see attorney general Suella Braverman walking towards us past Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, built on the site of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre. With the minister floating along to the rousing bars of the Soviet anthem, we wondered whether there was nothing in Jeremy Corbyn’s 2019 manifesto that this free-spending Tory government was not prepared to nick.