The Conservatives assembled in Birmingham for their party conference this week are fighting over lots of things. They’re fighting over the 45p tax U-turn, and the prospect of a swingeing benefit cut, and whether or not it’s OK for the home secretary to accuse backbenchers of mounting a coup. But above all, deep down, they’re mostly fighting about whether Liz Truss has got what it takes. There may never have been so many angry things said by so many Tories about each other in a single day as there were on Monday. It’s not the ideal introduction for the most important speech of Liz Truss’s life.
Some of them are angrily making headlines by saying exactly what they bloody well think; others are angrily making headlines by telling the first lot to put a sock in it. The mood is a little delirious. An amazing video appeared on Tuesday of at least three people appearing to sleep soundly through health secretary Thérèse Coffey’s speech in the main hall, but on Wednesday morning I find myself wondering if they weren’t obscure backbenchers who somebody had poisoned.
It’s impossible to be comprehensive after a day like that – although a Twitter user by the name of Hairy Politics has had a good go, with an increasingly baroque series of diagrams of who’s attacking who which featured 21 names at 3.10pm and 33 by 8.30am. (It did include figures like “Steve Baker of Christmas Past”, admittedly.) To make the below list, then, is a badge of honour. Commiserations to education minister Andrea Jenkyns, whose attack on “Harry Potter degrees” was easily wild enough to feature, but was disqualified because they don’t actually exist, and Harry Potter probably isn’t a member of the Tory party.
Here is our top 10 of infighting Tories:
10 Anonymous MPs and party sources
Plenty of fear and loathing from unnamed insiders, of course. “I would rather see Keir Starmer in No 10 than this Conservative party,” one MP says in this excellent read from Aubrey Allegretti, Pippa Crerar and Jessica Elgot. “This is the kind of chaos you only see at the end of a premiership – it’s impossible for her to recover,” says a former cabinet minister. “The trouble is there are so many bastards in the party,” a minister told the Daily Mail. “Michael Gove is an absolute snake,” a party insider told the Telegraph. All good stuff, but – sorry folks – on a day of such riches, you’ll need to put your name on it if you want to get higher than tenth.
9 Michael Gove
The aforementioned absolute snake would be higher, but his most vicious and consequential intervention was that which helped do for the 45p tax cut policy in an interview on Sunday. On Tuesday, he confined himself to the pointed observation that the party should reflect the ideas which Boris Johnson won on in 2019. In more normal times, such a clear repudiation of the party’s direction of travel from a former senior minister would be news in itself.
8 Robert Buckland
Asked what he thought of interventions by Gove and former chief whip Julian Smith (who, among other interventions in the last few weeks, at one point summarised his position as “Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh”), the Welsh secretary said: “I think it would be better for many colleagues to keep their own counsel.” “Robert Buckland says shut up,” said interviewer Jon Sopel. “Yeah,” he replied.
7 Kemi Badenoch
The first serving cabinet minister on our list had a few choice words for another one, Suella Braverman, who accused Gove and others of staging a “coup” over the top rate of income tax. After first joining with Braverman by having a go at backbenchers “trying to lob grenades at the PM”, she then turned to the home secretary: “‘I don’t think we should be talking about coups,” she said, “I think that sort of a language is just too inflammatory.”
6 Penny Mordaunt
The former leadership candidate – and another cabinet member, who, let’s remember, are supposed to be bound by collective responsibility – carefully rubbished the idea of cutting benefits. It “makes sense” that they should rise in line with inflation not pay, she said: “We’re not about trying to help people with one hand and take it away with another.”
Truss was said to be furious with Mordaunt, the leader of the Commons, but her intervention reveals the risks inherent in Truss’s insistence that no decision has yet been made on the issue: until one is, ministers can attack the idea without specifically contradicting the government.
5 Simon Clarke
Clarke’s intervention was relatively modest: it came in the form of a single tweet saying that Suella Braverman “speaks a lot of good sense”. Which would be a perfectly normal thing to say about a fellow cabinet minister – except that the quotes from Braverman he was approving of were the one about a coup, and one about her “disappointment” at the 45p tax U-turn. So that’s another cabinet minister, one said to be one of Truss’s most intense loyalists, suggesting the government has got it wrong – and accusing backbenchers of insurrection.
4 Lord Frost
A Truss loyalist, Lord Frost, told LBC that the government is “doing the right thing in trying to set a new direction”. But he also said the government had made “unnecessary political errors”, looked “rather weak”, had made “avoidable mistakes”, and had gone about the whole thing in an “amateurish, bungling way”. The only loyalist who says things like that about me is my mother, and at least she’s not giving radio interviews about it.
3 Grant Shapps, unchained
Now we’re into the real big guns. Told about Buckland’s demand that people like him “shut up” in a remarkable interview with the News Agents podcast on Tuesday, he had a subtle go at Buckland for switching from Sunak to Truss in the leadership contest, suggested that he “applies the same to himself”, and said he was simply “speaking truth to power”. He also implied that Truss had brought his attacks on herself “by sacking me”, and said she had 10 days to save her premiership. Quite often, he ended his obvious attacks on Truss by saying he was “cheering her on”. Lol.
2 Nadine Dorries
At one point on Tuesday, Nadine Dorries drew on her gifts as a writer to say dreamily that the Tories’ poll deficit under Boris Johnson would have “burned away like a morning mist on a summer’s lawn.” The rest of it was a little blunter. She sent two tweets confirming her view of Monday that if Truss wants to turn away from Johnson’s programme for government, she needs “a fresh mandate” – which clearly refers to another election.
(Shapps, incidentally, said that those sorts of bold demands were all very well for someone like Dorries, who has a substantial second income from her novels, but less attractive to the average backbencher.) All this would be remarkable under any circumstances – but all the more so from someone who said less than a month ago that she would “always show [Truss] the same loyalty and support I have to Boris Johnson”.
1 Suella Braverman
At one point on Tuesday, there were three separate stories about the home secretary on the MailOnline homepage; there’s a massive picture of her on the front of today’s Telegraph, approvingly describing her as a “true blue”. In part, that’s because of the series of fierce views she espoused in her interview with the Telegraph on Tuesday – from claiming Britain has a “benefits street culture” to saying that a Telegraph splash of a flight taking asylum seekers to Rwanda was “my dream, my obsession”. But the most urgent part of her comments was that extraordinary reference to a backbench “coup” against the prime minister, and a warning that MPs like Michael Gove should stop “airing your dirty linen” in public. Liz Truss will likely be hoping the same. Let’s see how it goes.