This article originally appeared in our Elevenses newsletter.
It takes gall to ditch the northern leg of a vital infrastructure project for the north while in Manchester at a conference event being hosted in a former train station, but despite the best efforts of several regional mayors, former prime ministers and even deep-pocketed Tory donors, ditch it they will.
The project, which has been both partially delivered and partially derailed over successive Tory administrations since 2010, has faced spiralling costs to become what is now – as we noted in our last dispatch – the most “expensive white elephant in UK history”. FT analysis shows the cost per mile of track is now £262 million in Britain, versus £92 million per mile in Japan, £74 million per mile in Italy and £34 million per mile in Germany. To those wondering why we can’t deliver infrastructure projects at a reasonable rate, I suggest you take a look at the political makeup of the Chilterns, which will soon be home to an underground network of rail lines so vast that those travelling to Birmingham will do so with little prospect of seeing sunlight.
And speaking of long shadows, there has certainly been one cast over the Conservative Party Conference, where despite the prime minister’s best efforts the HS2 announcement has come to totally dominate. What was once the party of business and good money has lost all credibility on those fronts, and what’s more, as one donor has said, they can no longer be relied upon to do the things they say they’d do. But what’s more worrying than the things they don’t care about are the things they do care about, and if this party season has shown anything, it is that the Tory Party we once knew is well and truly dead.
The proof in that particular pudding was on show at the party’s fringe events in the opening days, which were flooded by delegates while pictures of empty seats from a scaled-back main hall made the rounds on social media. People flocked to hear Liz Truss rejuvenate her disproven trickle-down economics ideas, while a Lee Anderson Q&A in which he called poverty “nonsense” was another big pull. GB News, which increasingly looks like a government news channel run by the government, was widely lauded in speeches as a “defender of free speech” (cite Priti Patel) and a channel that we “need more of” (cite Truss). I’m sure it’s merely a coincidence that Tory MPs have been paid nearly £350,000 for appearances on that particular news channel since the start of 2023.
But it was the looming presence of a man widely credited with reviving that channel that acted as inescapable evidence that the UKIPisation of the Tory Party was nearly complete. Nigel Farage was in the wings for Truss’s tax-cutting conference and he was under the wings of Priti Patel later that night as the two danced the night away. Rishi Sunak refuses to rule out that he could rejoin the Tory Party while Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested he would be welcomed with open arms, suggestions the man himself has dismissed. In his words, “I achieved a lot more outside of the Tory party than I ever could have done from within it”. And he’s right. As this conference shows, he has reshaped it in his image.
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