The slogan for the Conservative party conference, printed on its brochure, is Getting Britain Moving, prompting a stream of jokes and memes online as it was revealed on the day mortgage lenders began to pull their products and the pound slid to its lowest level.
After a catastrophic week, Liz Truss hopes the conference will give her some space to wrest back control of the party and set out her plans on her own terms. “She needs a reset moment,” one insider admits. “Although she currently seems to be the only person who actually thinks that might be possible.”
The absences at the Tory conference will say as much as the speeches. Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Mel Stride and David Davis are all Tory big beasts who are steering clear of Birmingham.
Two ousted cabinet ministers, Grant Shapps and Michael Gove, will be speaking on the fringes. Shapps has hinted he is likely to be loyal, in the hope of making a cabinet return, while Gove plans to speak out judiciously on the environment. Another former cabinet minister said he would be there “but in heavy disguise”.
Rail strikes and a shorter recess, cut by a week because of the earlier suspension of parliament during the mourning for the Queen, have also convinced wavering MPs to stay away.
But the most commonly cited reason, even among many of Truss’s own supporters, is the appeal of being able to avoid media interviews during the conference. One former cabinet minister who is attending said: “The presence of the lobby is probably the No 1 argument for staying at home.”
Another MP said: “There is a significant number of people who do think it is all terrible, but don’t want any blue-on-blue. So they are taking the view that it’s best to be silent.”
Kwasi Kwarteng will address the party conference on Monday, with Truss in the final slot on Wednesday. Scheduling of speeches by cabinet ministers has raised eyebrows, all in two-hour slots between 4pm and 6pm, prompting half-joking conspiracy theories that they have been timed for early evenings so journalists cannot monitor the real-time market reaction.
But there is a very real fear among MPs about what Kwarteng – or any minister speaking on a fringe, or any critical MP raising concerns – might do to fuel economic turmoil.
One veteran MP said: “There is very little I can imagine that Kwasi could say which would not do more to undo the emergency action the Bank had to take earlier this week. Every time he or Liz speaks, things get worse.”
The prime minister, despite all the pressure, seems determined to stick to her financial plans. The conference blueprint, pored over for months by Tory headquarters, remains broadly the same, with just the opening day, Sunday, looking “a little different”, in part to mark the death of the Queen.
Tory insiders say there won’t be any further announcements on tax changes or spending increases, to avoid spooking the markets. Instead, ministers will be teeing up supply side reforms in areas such as planning, business regulations and agriculture, which will be brought in “thick and fast” once parliament returns.
There will also be red meat for the Tory membership with announcements on immigration, the criminal justice system and anti-strike legislation. “It’s fair to say some are feeling a bit queasy about how things are looking, so we’ll be trying to give them a bit of reassurance that they backed the right horse,” one insider says.
It is claimed that Truss’s speech won’t contain any big policy “rabbit out of the hat”, but will instead set out her vision for growth in a bid to win over her detractors. “It will be more ‘my philosophy, what I’m trying to achieve, let’s do that and win the next general election’,” says one.
The prime minister’s team say she will be “pretty visible”, with events and media appearances, as she tries to regain control of the narrative. “It gives us an opportunity to communicate on our own terms,” says an aide. Kwarteng has penned a private memo to Tory MPs appealing for their public backing: “We need your support.”
Downing Street acknowledges more needs to be done to calm the nerves of Tory MPs and to try to win them over. “That’s an area where we need to make some improvements,” one insider admits, with deliberate understatement. “There’s no two ways about it.”
They recognise that four strong poll leads for Labour on the eve of conference – including one that put the Tories 33 points behind – has inflamed an already febrile situation. “The polls are going to be volatile after something like this,” one insider says. “But we’re in it for the long term. If we can get through the difficult economic times and improve people’s lives, the polls will start moving.”
Conservative conference is usually a more controlled and temperate affair than Labour’s, which has been dominated by toxic rows over internal party politics in recent years. This year, Conservative MPs watched in horror at the jubilant scenes at Labour’s conference, which had a new sense of unity and confidence as well as a healthy poll lead.
A Labour frontbencher revealed he had received a text part-way through the conference from a Tory MP, telling him to make sure his party won the next election. When the frontbencher texted back to ask why, the reply was “because I’m a patriot”.
Another Labour MP recalled bumping into a Tory colleague en route to Westminster who joked: “I should hand you the keys to my office now.” The Labour MP was taken aback, given the Tory’s seat was not on his party’s target list.
A number of Conservative MPs emphasised that they believed the conference should be used by Truss and Kwarteng to speak directly to people’s concerns about their fiscal package and emphasise the point of their plans and how they may benefit working people.
Even MPs who are supportive of Truss’s economic ambitions say they understand the politics have been bad. “What we haven’t had yet is any kind of articulation of the ideology and why it works for ordinary people – which I assume is what Liz and Kwasi believe. They haven’t done yet. So that’s why conference has got to be used for that.”
One MP said the communication of the package had been “shocking” and said an example provided to him for use on local radio used a household earning £50,000, when the average wage in their constituency was £26,000.
The “bloody mindedness” of the approach in broadcast interviews has alarmed some MPs, who said they hoped it was not a theme that would continue during conference. “The people doing this are absolute believers in the cause of growth at all costs, and to hell with everything else and this will sort out all our problems,” one MP said.
“They’re absolutely convinced that anyone who doesn’t agree with that is wrong. So whether it’s Treasury orthodoxy, the IMF, the Bank of England, wet colleagues like me. We’re all sort of brushed aside. But if everyone else is wrong, but your house is burning down, it’s not really very helpful,” added another.
For years, the Labour conference has been criticised as a place where the party has only talked to itself. But one Conservative MP said that they thought this year Truss needed to spend some of her energy talking directly to the party as well as the country, in order to restore trust after a bruising reshuffle and get restive MPs back onside.
“At the moment, they’re not carrying many people with them. So that’s their challenge - to secure home base first, get the parliamentary party behind them. And that’s partly about tone as much as anything else.”
It will inevitably be a bruising conference, but even if Truss gets through it relatively unscathed, she should steel herself for what follows. “Her danger point is when the Commons gets back,” says one MP. “There are a lot of very serious people on the backbenches who have stayed away from conference, but have already had enough. Surviving this week will look easy in comparison.”