To Doncaster, home of the horses and the Northern Research Group conference. But there was only one race on the lips of attendees at the Doncaster track today: the leadership race. To the disappointment of the assembled Tory MPs, Boris Johnson pulled out of a scheduled afternoon appearance to visit Kyiv. He was meant to be the star turn at the conference as part of a bid to win back wavering MPs since last week’s confidence vote. One disgruntled backbencher told Mr S: ‘I’m quite pissed off to be honest. Him coming was the whole point.’ Members of the NRG had planned to present the PM with a list of demands to maintain the Tory grip on the Red Wall at the next election. Instead, Michael Gove appeared on Zoom.
Ready to take Johnson’s place though were several ambitious upstarts, who may well foster leadership hopes of their own. Take Dehenna Davison, the power-dressing symbol of the 2019 intake. The Bishop Auckland MP gave an impassioned speech on ‘levelling up’, urging young northerners to be more aspirational in their career goals. A warning there for Boris, perhaps? The presence of her veteran colleague David Davis left some younger activists wondering if it’ll be ‘DD for me’ in some future leadership contest. Some did enjoy Davison’s suggestion that colleagues should respond to less media requests in future to deter Tory in-fighting, given her own regular presenting duties on GB News.
Elsewhere Rishi Sunak was on the charm offensive last night, charming northern Tories to the extent that one bleary-eyed MP asked Steerpike for paracetamol today. But despite a surprise appearance by Hazel Blears of all people, the undoubted star of the conference was Tom Tugendhat, the Tory Lawrence of Afghanistan. The Tonbridge MP appeared to relish his role as the token southerner of proceedings, appearing first on a panel about defence and then as a surprise stand-in at the Q&A plenary session.
The Old Pauline charmed the crowd with a truly One Nation pitch, telling the assembled activists, hacks and businessmen that:
‘The conversation in conservatism has for too long been about finance. Now that’s understandable because so much of the City drives so much of our economy. But while it drives our economy, it doesn’t guarantee our liberty. What truly guarantees our liberty is the manufacturing, the heart of industry which is northern conservatism. It’s the conservatism that saw coal came out of the ground and give us that amazing propulsion boost which powered a whole economy, that amazing growth of the industries that went from rail all the way through to rocketry. That’s what’s powering us today… if you go to Newcastle today and you see the spin-offs… you will see spin-offs that are becoming start-ups that are becoming huge firms or will become huge firms that will rival the Googles of this world in years to come and they’re there because of that same spirit of industry and innovation… what I see when I come up to the North, where so much of my family is from, I can tell you, I don’t just see home and I don’t just see the past, I don’t see the negativity that Labour seems to paint it with. I see an extraordinary opportunity.
Well, quite, if the reaction of the assembled crowd was anything to go by. Given his nimble footwork dancing around the issues, Tugendhat’s performance was held, appropriately enough, in the Nijinsky room. With regards to defence – but with perhaps reference to politics too – the backbencher told the conference that ‘resilience isn’t just the ability to adapt what you’ve got today, it’s actually the ability you’ll need to build for the future’. He added, with regards to the Americans ‘they do bring something quite exceptional and, if you’ll excuse me for misquoting Stalin, “Quantity has a quality of its own”.’ Rather like endorsements in a Tory leadership race perhaps?
Then it was time for the Q&A where Tugendhat underlined his own tax-cutting credentials, telling a Sun reporter that he wanted to see a fuel duty cut as ‘£2 a litre is something I notice when filling up the car.’ And when the question came up as to whether he would in fact run for leader, the former army officer did not demure, saying:
No, I won’t rule it out. And I won’t rule it out because I think that we should be ambitious for ourselves, for our communities and our country. I think that we should offer ourselves forward for service. I think that’s exactly the reason that we have so many fantastic councillors, some of whom are in this room, so many fantastic Members of Parliament, many of whom are in this room because they have had the guts to have the credibility in themselves to step forward and to make the argument that yes, they are leaders, they are leaders at a local and national level. And so I don’t think that we should rule ourselves out. We should offer ourselves forward and then it’s up to colleagues in the country to choose. You can be resentful about if the choice doesn’t go your way but you can offer yourself for service, that is literally the point of being in public service.
I think there is a huge opportunity for unity. I don’t think there’s a major division in the party. I think, actually, if you speak to colleagues and you speak to councillors and you speak to members around the country you’ll see that people are united. What they want is they want a restart, they want a kick-start, they want the innovation, the opportunity, that this country demonstrates time and again.
Let’s hope, for Johnson’s sake, the PM doesn’t miss too many more party gatherings.
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