The Tory conference has a very morbid vibe.
Photo: Chris Bethell
There's an undeniable stench of death hanging around the Tory conference in Manchester. One of the first pages of the conference brochure is an advert for The Conservative Foundation – encouraging members to hand over some of their legacy to the party when they kick the bucket. The corridors of the main conference hotel remind me of The Shining. To get into the secure zone, you have your pass checked by no fewer than five security guards, before you get to the airport-style security and then pass the submachine gun-toting policemen. It's almost like they're trying to tell you something: turn back, there's nothing for you here.
The Conservative Party has been dying out – very literally – for years, but it's taken a pasting from a grey-bearded socialist for those who are still alive to notice. Looming over the horizon is electoral oblivion.
The Labour Party conference fringe had a sense of purpose. A lot of time was spent discussing what Labour would do if it took power. The Tories in government seem to be a completely purpose-free zone. Corporate sponsors are helpfully making sure the party remains laser focused on the hot button issues that every Mondeo man, Aldi woman and newly enfranchised millennial is talking about. For instance: "A nuclear reactor in every city?" – hosted by Rolls Royce, who make nuclear reactors. Or "Vaping: Could Brexit be good for our health" – with the Vape Association well represented on the panel.
Other than that, there's a lot of morbid discussion about what went wrong at the election. The party not appealing to its own members would be a start. Every event is a complete drag. People sit listening to the panellists in silence, yawing, padding at their phones and just about managing polite but tepid applause after each boring speech. It all feels like a school assembly full of geriatrics. It's bizarre to think that people are actually choosing to spend their time here. As Andrew Woodcock, Political Editor of the Press Association, overheard, "Why would any normal person join the Conservative Party?"
Chancellor Phil Hammond tried to make the case with a red scare. Forgetting to make a positive case for anything, he cast Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell as "dinosaurs", warning about the horrors of "Marxist policies" that will "inevitably lead us back to where we were in the late 1970s".
Meanwhile, the policies on offer are just concessions to that same terrifying Marxism. Tuition fees frozen, rather than done away with, and an extension of Help to Buy to further inflate the housing market. In other words: promises that muddy the free market message, but that nobody gives a fuck about. As one delegate put it to me, "Why would you go for Corbyn-lite when you can have the full-fat Corbyn Kool Aid? Theresa May is offering you £360 when Corbyn is going to bung you £30,000."
David "Two Brains" Willets touched on the contradiction in a fringe about appealing to young voters. It was extremely heartwarming to see the former Universities Minster, who increased tuition fees to £9,000 per year, taking an interest in the opinions of the young. He said, "Their aim is not to promote Marxist revolution. Their aim is to own a place of their own, to have a decent funded pension and to have a reasonably secure job that's well paid. This is not a radical agenda for the destruction of a Britain that the Conservative Party knows…" It was some real blue sky thinking – what if everyone wasn't poor and didn't blow half their zero-hours pay packet on rent for a damp bedsit? Someone should tell whatever party is in government.
Watching broadsheet journalists and Tory Lords discuss getting youth enthused about a dying ideology felt like watching a secret society of immortality obsessives planning to harvest some virile young blood for a transfusion. "In many respects, young people are not a problem… They are drinking less, they're taking fewer drugs," said Willets, preparing the chloroform and the syringe.
At the same event, Sam Gyimah MP gave a rousing summary of the wonders that capitalism has bestowed on us: "Smart phones, Uber… everything."
One of the few encounters a Conservative politician would have had with a youth in the wild came as protesters disrupted a meeting of the Bruges Group – hardline Eurosceptics – with Jacob Rees-Mogg, the newly popular Victorian Toryism superstar who's followed around by an entourage of young fans who look like contestants on the Junior Apprentice.
The protesters burst in with banners saying "Tories Out!" and chanted the same. Journalists nearly knocked audience members out as they rushed to surround the protesters with cameras and ask them questions. When most of them had been moved on, the media scrum focused on one young guy who was addressing Rees-Mogg directly.
After telling Rees-Mogg he was "not welcome here", the Tory politician told him to get down to some specifics.
"Mate, you're harming people's lives. People are dying because of the things you are advocating," said the protester.
"I think the policies the government is implementing are making people's lives better," said Mogg, speaking from a completely different reality.
The young debater was roughly escorted out by security, and after some turgid speeches from other panellists, the Mogg took to the stage. The first thing he said was to address the protest: "We should be really pleased that people want to come to our meetings and engage with our ideas. It's a glorious thing about our nation: We are a free country and we're not afraid of people holding other views to our own, because we think we can win the battle of ideas."
Perhaps he hadn't clocked that the young guy had been forcibly ejected, with the bouncer using his face to open the door. Rees-Mogg then made a speech in which he said we should stop "Crying into our soup" about Brexit – another call for mindless jingoism in the face of national disaster. The Conservatives want a "Brexit in our image", said the man who called the most recent of his six children Sixtus Dominic Boniface Christopher.
But really it's all about trade and putting the consumers first. "Who am I to tell you that you can't have chlorinated chicken if you want it?"
This was laissez faire Mogg – the freewheeling counterpoint to his patrician vibe. He'll tell women they can't have an abortion. He'll tell gays they can't marry. He'll vote for the government to snoop on your WhatsApp. But will he tell factory farmers to adhere to strong food quality standards? Certainly not – who do you think he is, Stalin?
Here it was at last. The moral argument for capitalism. Free markets smashing through regulation. For too long our paternalistic oppressors have been denying the poor delicious portions of cheap, chlorine-soaked chicken. Jacob Rees-Mogg will destroy this bureaucracy, save the Conservative Party and liberate humanity. I can hear the beating of a new world in my heart. A shining vision: through chlorinated chicken we will attain eternal life.