It's day two at the Conservative party conference and many attendees will be waking up with sore heads today. The fringes were packed last night as Tory ministers did the rounds. Liz Truss, the darling of the free market think tanks, appeared at the Think Tent equipped with a magnificent blow dry and an applause-winning speech which castigated cancel culture as 'fundamentally wrong.' That and other jibes at identity politics in her conference address lead the Daily Mail this morning to ask whether she is in fact the new Mrs Thatcher.
Elsewhere Michael Gove was on manoeuvres at the CPS while Stuart Andrew did the late night rounds, telling Conservatives in Communications that when he accepted a post in the whips office he was 'slightly anxious that it would mean I wouldn't be able to speak in the chamber, given I've got such a marginal seat.' The then Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson replied: 'Stuart, I've heard you speak – and we've got a better chance of winning if you don't.'
But the main focus of the evening was on the big two of British politics and the parties they showed up for – and those they didn't. Grassroots attendees packed at each event at which Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak were meant to appear, with the former enlivening receptions for Gibraltar, Conservative Women and Scottish Tories. The PM praised his female ministers at the Women2Win event, telling Tories that 'I look at the pipeline of talent, it is so hard to choose' and joking that:
“Not one but two of the four Great Offices of State are current held by women. They used to say that the job for an ambitious and well-organised woman in the Conservative party was to be a secretary and it's still true – Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary.
At the Scottish Conservative fringe meanwhile Johnson's lines were a little less assured, telling attendees that the only way Labour could get into power would be a 'crackpot coalition' with the 'Scottish Nationalist party' before joking that 'the gild is coming off the gingerbread, the lustre is going from old "twinkle toes".' The PM clarified that 'twinkle toes' was a reference to 'Alex Salmond' before appearing to apologise to recently-sacked Scottish minister David Duguid, whose defenestration and replacement by Lord Offord has caused some unease in Holyrood. 'The applause lines didn't get much applause' remarked one suffering-staffer.
But the main focus of the night was the 1922 drinks with ConservativeHome in a room stuffed full of parliamentary talent and, for some reason, Barry Gardiner. While Johnson was not scheduled to make an appearance here, Prime Ministers have traditionally done so in the past to pay tribute to their colleagues. His 'disappointing' absence – in the words of one disgruntled backbencher – left a vacuum for Sunak to fill, in a room full of MPs who will presumably one day decide who Johnson's successor should be.
The Chancellor leapt to the stage to tell fellow Tories about what he was most looking forward too at conference: Michael Gove dancing, the PM running in a full suit (not just a shirt) and 'machine like message discipline from every single one of you – and that means you too Cabinet.' He added that 'I've got your back' to anxious MPs in the room and that 'for the record I too am a low tax conservative' – welcome words for those party donors who Mr S understands attended a 'tense' meeting earlier at the Midland, amid considerable unease at the recent NI hike.
In such circumstances, perhaps it's understandable that Boris would stay away.