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Truss on a magic highway to spaghetti junction

Illustration: Grace Gay for Research Professional News

Conference sketch: The new government hits the road at the Conservative Party gathering in Birmingham

The prime minister concluded her leader’s speech to the Tory party conference in Birmingham with what sounded a lot like “a new Britain for a new error”.

Then she strode out of the hall to the sound of a faux-heavy metal track entitled Magic Highway. It was a suitable end to a week of debate about public spending cuts in the city that invented both modern Conservatism and the UK’s heavy metal scene.

Expectations were so low for Liz Truss’ leader’s speech that by consensus “her best public performance” means it was not the car crash some had expected. It was nevertheless devoid of any meaningful content, especially for the research world.

‘Iron grip’

She briefly acknowledged the U-turn on the 45 per cent rate of tax before saying she had an “iron grip” on the country’s finances. In the last few weeks she has tanked the pound, forced an emergency £65 billion intervention by the Bank of England, pushed up long-term interest rates and earned a rebuke from the International Monetary Fund. If this is an iron grip, we would hate to see her in relaxed mode.

The Birmingham tourist office likes to boast that the city is where gas lighting was invented. It is good to see the tradition is being continued.

The speech spawned a new Tory bête noir, what Truss called “the anti-growth coalition”—the “enemies of enterprise” who take “taxis from north London townhouses to BBC studios to criticise anyone challenging the status quo”.

Possible members of the anti-growth coalition would seem to include Rishi Sunak, the permanent secretary to the Treasury, mortgage lenders, the Sunday Times and the pound.

The party members in the hall loved it, at one point responding to a heckle from Greenpeace protestors with shouts of "Come on Liz!" as if the prime minister were Tim Henman two sets down against Roger Federer in the Wimbledon quarter finals.

Higher education and research featured little in this “pro-growth” speech.

Truss noted that when living in Leeds as a child she had seen too many “let down by a Labour council more interested in political correctness than educational standards”, saying she was “lucky to come from a family that cared about education”.

Famously, that family also cared little for the Conservative Party, but that’s academics for you. Perhaps her mum and dad are also members of the anti-growth coalition.

Pork barrel markets

Elsewhere at the conference higher education and research enjoyed more of an outing, if not a hearing. Skills minister Andrea Jenkyns told a fringe meeting of the Bruges Group that “the current system would rather our young people get a degree in Harry Potter studies than in construction”, and universities were feeding students “a diet of critical race theory, anti-British history and social Marxism”.

Iain Mansfield, the former adviser to Gavin Williamson and Michelle Donelan, said contextual admissions were as “abhorrent” as racism. In a great Tory policy mashup, home secretary Suella Braverman said there were too many international students “propping up low-quality courses”.

Amid the Tory in-fighting, former science minister George Freeman told the government “to cut out the bollocks” and stop calling everything in UK science and innovation world-leading. Nadine Dorries called for a general election, possibly because Liz Truss cancelled the privatisation of Channel Four.

Research Professional News also broke the story that we do in fact have a new science minister, Nus Ghani, after former universities minister David Willetts let the cat out the bag in a fringe session.

This made even more disappointing Ghani’s absence from most of the panels she was scheduled to appear on.

Ghani was not the only Nus to be cancelled this week. The National Union of Students was dropped as the traditional fringe partner of the new universities group Million Plus, which preferred to get into bed with Conservative Home, who these days are probably also seen as members of the anti-growth coalition.

One topic of conversation here this week has been investment zones. The Conservatives published a prospectus for the low-regulation, low-tax areas on the first day of the conference.

It is odd that the party have been able to rush out a brochure on investment zones but not an independent analysis of their mid-term financial plans. Only the most cynical observer would see anything remotely suspicious in that.

Rather than a platform speech from education secretary Kit Malthouse, we had the entire Department for Education ministerial team—including the skills minister—on stage sitting in lounge chairs having a chat. It looked like a cheap revival of a Mike Leigh play. Let’s call it Andrea’s Party.

Quadruple helix

Outside the Birmingham International Conference Centre fire and brimstone preachers have been shouting about the day of judgment. 

If pushed to describe the experience of the last four days inside the maze of the International Convention Centre, we might compare it to being trapped in a sketch by MC Escher: constantly walking up stairs but never going anywhere—only surrounded by members of the Conservative Party.

Just as you think you’ve found your bearings, an Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Gove will breeze past, on their way to the Falkland Islands Government stall, leaving you more confounded than ever. The most that can be said for the spaghetti junction architecture of the ICC is that it is hard to do a U-turn in it.

Not that this has stopped the prime minister and her chancellor this week, who have moved on from U-turns at speed to doing doughnuts in a clown car. Next week in the ICC they are filming a Christmas special episode of Britain’s Got Talent. We’ll leave readers to finish that joke themselves.