When the decline and fall of UKIP is turned into a play, it will include, one hopes, the stage direction: “Exit Douglas Carswell, pursued by a bear.”
The setting was Church House, where the circular assembly hall was full for last night’s Post-Election Conference, organised by ConservativeHome, the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Business for Britain and the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Carswell, now UKIP’s only MP, appeared on a panel to talk about Europe. He observed that “87 per cent of people did not vote UKIP”, so “we need to be very careful that we do not equate support for withdrawal [from the EU] with support for UKIP”. The tone must be one of “optimism and sunshine”, in order “to build a broad-based movement”.
Ned Simons, of Huffington Post, asked from the floor: “Douglas, were you surprised that Nigel Farage unresigned himself today? And given your comments about the tone, is he the best person to lead UKIP and the Eurosceptic movement going forward?”
Carswell replied, or unreplied: “Ned, I’m delighted that you’ve asked a question about the subject we’re discussing. I heard about the unresignation on I think Twitter or whatever. You’ll need to ask me about it later. I’m not going to talk about that now.”
So the reporters at the conference asked him about it later. They pursued Carswell down the stairs of Church House. Rob Hutton, of Bloomberg News, played the part of the bear: a friendly, lumbering bear, who does not actually want to eat people, but knows it’s a story if the one MP in a party refuses to back the old and new leader.
The rest of the conference was carried out in a more dignified spirit. Lord Ashcroft opened it with a magisterial defence of polling which appeared earlier this morning on ConHome. The many insights which followed were so various that unless one possesses the synoptic gifts of David Willetts, they defy summary. So I have instead decided to note some of the moments which were applauded, or booed.
Liz Truss MP, who is herself carrying on as Environment Secretary, was applauded when she said: “I think it’s very good that Sajid Javid is Business Secretary.” Deregulation is strongly backed by Conservative, and conservative, activists: they know the last Business Secretary, Vince Cable, never really believed in getting rid of red tape.
Tim Montgomerie, founder of ConHome, was applauded when he said that “new housebuilding” would be one way he would measure the success of the new Government.
Liam Fox MP was applauded when he said: “I do not regard an £87 billion borrowing requirement as being compatible with my definition of austerity.” He went on: “We shouldn’t call it austerity. We should call it living within your means.”
Lord Forsyth, the last Tory Scottish Secretary, was applauded when he said of the present Scottish Conservative leader: “In Ruth Davidson we have an absolute star.” He went on to say, in response to a question about whether Conservatives north of the border should change their name: “I think it’s competely fatuous that by changing the name of the party everything will change.”
Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, was applauded when he said: “The Barnett Formula is completely unfair to the United Kingdom.” He added, after the applause died down: “We’ve just been elected on a promise to keep it.”
Matthew Hancock, newly appointed Paymaster General, attracted groans, and cries of “No!”, when he attempted, in response to a question from the floor, to defend HS2. Few projects are more unpopular with activists than HS2.
Dominic Raab MP was applauded when he declared – after Mark Littlewood of the IEA asked if he wanted two tax rates of 20 and 40 per cent – “I was going to say 15 and 35”. Raab was also applauded when he said: “We need an energy policy that makes economic and environmental sense.”
Mark Littlewood was himself applauded when he referred to “another producer interest you might want to tackle, the BBC”. The appointment of John Whittingdale as Culture Secretary was greeted with applause.
Laura Sandys, who at the election stepped down as MP for South Thanet and is now chairperson of the European Movement, made a tactful and generally well-received attempt to defend Britain’s membership of the EU in terms of the national interest, but produced murmurs of discontent when she said: “We didn’t realise we would lose access to the European market if we came out of the EU.”
The general sense of the conference was that even in Europe, and indeed Scotland, the Conservatives have won the opportunity to achieve great things over the next five years.