The Conservatives are desperate for change. Rishi Sunak made this crystal clear – after being introduced by his wife, seriously-unfunny compère and near-billionaire Akshata Murthy – when addressing the crowd of members, ministers and lickspittles who made their way to Manchester for this week’s Tory party conference.
How desperate? In an hour-long speech, Rishi used the word “change” 30 times. On the big screen, a video with the phrase “Change is…” rotated through various examples of how the Tories have, well, changed the UK, leading up to the grand finale: “Change is… the Conservatives”.
A torrent of rolling applause came from the Tories-on-tour, all acting as if the word “change” had just been coined by a blue-sky think tank or some sort of neoliberal neologist. “It is time for a change,” Sunak ended smugly.
Even the deeply malevolent Lee Anderson, known as 30p Lee, wanted change. The MP for Ashfield knows all about that – he was, after all, a Labour Party member for years. “We can change,” he said in a Channel 4 interview, appealing to the fact that Rishi has only been in power for a year and so can’t be held accountable for past party policies. That’s when he wasn’t busy saying this to Owen Jones: “Show me these kids are in poverty. Bring me some to my office.”
As Sunak’s warm-up act Penny Mordaunt, unwitting Coronation “star” for her ability to hold a big sword for ages, toed this line, too. The Member for Portsmouth North said so very, very little with so many, many words in her speech, rabble-rousing the rich and shameless to “stand up and fight” against the status-quo. To make sure the hard-of-thinking Tory faithful got the message, she aped the boss’s trick, repeating the phrase multiple times in her 19-minute hectoring. (We think it was 12 times, but honestly, after a while, we sat down and gave in).
It’s the same approach taken by Nigel Farage as he frames himself as a radical, or by Talk TV as they pretend that they’re televising the revolution against the establishment.
So Sunak, the Tory Prime Minister, has tried to make himself not just a statesman (an unelected one, mind) but also an agent for… what was it again? Oh, that’s right. Change.
Which is all a bit confusing, really, as the Tories have been in power for 13 years. Unlucky for all, not just some. Isn’t change, then, more likely to come from changing the governing party rather than sticking with the exact same one? Even more of a melon-twister is that “conservative” means averse to change. It’s oxymoronic. Emphasis on the moronic.
When speaking of change, Sunak wasn’t referring to the party’s unhinged, revolving-door cabinet, one as strong and stable as a Wilko wardrobe. As well as getting through three prime ministers within 50 days last year, the Tories have had six directors of communications in the last 18 months. Since taking office in 2010, 39 cabinet ministers have been sacked or made to resign.
Grant Shapps, less of a lettuce and more of a total cabbage, epitomises this. He has, since September 2022, been Transport Secretary, Home Secretary, Business Secretary, Energy Secretary and Defence Secretary. He has also, in his sketchy past, been allegedly known under the aliases Michael Green, Corinne Stockheath and Sebastian Fox.
Nor was Sunak referring to the party’s many recent U‑turns. Once, the Tories spoke of triple-lock pensions (which, of course, they now might break). Now, the new policies they spit out are barely even secured with saliva. Net zero pledges, reduced to nothing. HS2, derailed.
Before that, change came in the form of reversing decisions on the 45p tax, mandatory masks, predicted grades, free school meals, windfall tax and energy loans. Anything can change in the blink of a Private Eye print-run. No commitment is concrete anymore. Even concrete isn’t concrete, as the school building RAAC scandal proved.
But no, none of this was on Sunak’s agenda. Instead, he was referring to a new set of policies promising positive change for the country, prioritising Long-Term Decisions for a Brighter Future, as the new tagline went.
Sure, HS2 has been stopped in its tracks, but now, regional travel will enjoy a total overhaul (including a “new” Manchester metrolink that has already existed for nearly a decade). Smoking will be permanently stamped out. T‑Levels and A‑Levels will be pointlessly grouped together into a single qualification.
The real change, though, was the party’s lurch (even further) rightward. Cosying up to Farage and rolling out the blue carpet for GB News, the discourse surrounding trans rights and asylum seekers was diabolically scary.
A facsimile of the fascist handbook, Suella Braverman warned of a “hurricane” of immigrants and called for more dangerous change: withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights. As L.iberty reminds us, this was “drafted in the aftermath of the Second World War and the Holocaust in an attempt to protect the people from the State, make sure the atrocities committed would never be repeated, and safeguard fundamental rights.” Pretty important, then.
Steve Barclay, meanwhile, has already changed the NHS advice pages to what he terms “sex-specific language” and ordered staff to stop declaring their pronouns, continuing one of the conference’s most repulsive themes: making trans people the enemy.
Truth is, the Conservatives have changed our country over the last 13 years – for the worse. Our lives have been permanently altered by serially ruinous Tory policy. Economically, we remain bust thanks to last year’s Kami-Kwasi Budget and Brexit. Morally, we are totally and utterly bankrupt. Spiritually, we are flattened. Crucially, though, we are not defeated.
Lies are now laid bare for all to see: the scaremongering about a made-up meat tax, bullshit discourse about 15-minute cities, the suggestion that inflation is a tax and a promise to kick “woke ideology out of science” – whatever the hell that even means.
Rishi should be pleased, though, because we have changed. Once upon a time, the Tory Conference was at least a little bit funny. Sure, it was depressing. But it was also fair game for satire. Attempts have been made to laugh at this year’s cringiest moments: Greg Hands holding aloft Keir Starmer flip-flops, Priti Patel doing karaoke or Suella Braveman playing table football.
But when the stakes are this high and the words are this scary, it’s not worth laughing at. Of course, humour can be a vital tool in confronting hateful politics, but everything is so dismal that, as local Manc heroes The Smiths once put it, that joke isn’t funny anymore. Look what happened to Morrissey.
If anything, the Tory Conference proved that “change” has totally lost its currency. In our postmodern, post-truth politics, anything can mean anything. Change can mean something new, or keeping something the same, or reverting back to something from the past. Change has changed.
The only hope for actual change, if it still means something, is that the Tories get a total pounding in the next election. Certainly, Labour’s landslide victory in this week’s Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election is a hopeful sign, even if Keir Starmer isn’t himself much of a change candidate. He’s been parroting many of the same policies for yonks. Toploader of Dancing in The Moonlight, after all, are themselves moonlighting as the live entertainment for both the Labour and the Conservative party conferences.
Perhaps a small handful of small change is all we can hope for when it comes to a general election that, it seems likely, will be next year. Frankly, we’ll take that, as long as these baleful blues are shown the back door. We can still demand more through grassroots activism and community organising, though.
Because “our” PM is right: the UK does need to change. Labour Party, gathering in Liverpool this weekend: we see you. We’re desperate for change, too.