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Rishi Sunak’s speech woes are a conference sideshow as entryism takes centre stage in Manchester | Politics News

There is a story at the Conservative Party in Manchester so much bigger than the spectacle of a prime minister trying in vain not to talk about HS2 before his big speech.

It raises existential questions about what the next iteration of the Conservative Party stands for.

And all week it has been happening in plain view around the convention centre.

Driven by the membership – and opposed by a significant minority of MPs – the centre of gravity of the Tory party, this is further than previous prime ministers would have been comfortable with.

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Members in large numbers embracing the very parts of the Liz Truss agenda, and the former prime minister herself, less than a year after Tory MPs chose to remove her from office.

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A home secretary mobbed by activists wanting selfies, even as a minority of Tory MPs petition the Chief Whip to sanction Suella Braverman for her comments on LGBT migrants.

And Nigel Farage – who once led political parties that posed an existential threat to the Conservatives – now, amazingly, roaming free around the conference centre with a press pass and dancing with Priti Patel on the fringe.

All this as key figures smell a leadership contest in the not-too-distant future. They are putting the members’ views – which are socially and economically more conservative than the Tory parliamentary party – to the fore in an arms race fought by those hoping to succeed Rishi Sunak.

All the while the prime minister finds himself entangled in an oxygen-depleting row over HS2 – creating a political vacuum gleefully filled by others.

The spectre of key figures invoking the membership to abandon the centre ground is a movie we have watched before.

In late 2015, the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader saw Labour suddenly embrace a branch of the left which had not been welcome in the party’s big tent since the days of Neil Kinnock.

Back then, we called it “entryism”. Now, the word is suddenly being used in Manchester this week – except by Tory MPs rather than Labour.

In 2016, Labour was challenged by the party-within-a-party of Momentum. In 2023, with the Tories, it is Boris Johnson backer Lord Peter Cruddas’s Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO) – which also explicitly includes non-Conservative members in its ranks.

It is no accident that Lord Cruddas himself made a call to “defund” the Sunak iteration of the party amid his movement’s desire to take back control for the right.

In leaked WhatsApp messages obtained by Sky News at the weekend, some members of the CDO embraced extreme conspiracy theories, suggesting Sunak is being manipulated by a global government run by elites linked to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

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As mad as this sounds, some were surprised when some elements of this argument surfaced at the party conference.

Backbench Tory MP Danny Kruger denounced “a huge movement going on globally to create essentially a world government that will have power to dictate to national governments what they should do in anticipation of another pandemic”, saying there is no greater threat to democracy.

Once the Tories’ mortal enemy, now Farage looks like he wants to use his platform on GB News to reshape the party he has long fought.

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On Tuesday, he pitted himself on the side of the Tory members and against Tory MPs, denouncing a “parliamentary party that is itself so one nation social democrat” before adding “what’s really happening this week, is the debate is, who and what takes over the party after we lose the next election”.

This is terrifying some Tory MPs. One, who believes the party could be about to shift decisively to the right and risks making itself unelectable, said: “We need to act now. We need to drain the swamp.”

He suggested this should begin with the sacking of Suella Braverman.

Another said the party is poised to make a historic mistake after the election.

A third said there was clear evidence of entryism that would not have been acceptable in years gone past.

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There are inevitably limits to how far you can push this analysis, as no thesis is ever perfect.

To what extent is the membership that is attending this Manchester conference representative of the wider group – these observations are a survey of the tiny subsection in front of us.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt got a full audience on Monday – albeit in a small hall – and Theresa May was another ex-PM who was present and had a queue for book signing.

One wise source ventured that some of the Truss audience would have been merely curious. This is all worth weighing in the balance.

Nevertheless, It is not clear Mr Sunak can direct where this party goes from here, even if he wanted to.

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