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Hundreds of Liz Truss fans waited for up to 90 minutes to hear the former prime minister speak alongside MPs including Dame Priti Patel and Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, with the queue snaking around the bar of the Midland Hotel.
Its length surprised many, including Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, who raised a quizzical eyebrow on his way by when he was told the growing line was for Ms Truss, asking: “Really?!”
It was standing room only inside her much-anticipated growth rally, and many attendees immediately gravitated towards former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, a surprise guest at proceedings, who told reporters he had been tempted back to conference for the first time in three decades by Truss’s message.
Almost a year on from quitting No 10, Liz Truss used her return to Conservative Party conference to push the same free market ideas that defined her 49-day premiership, but it doesn’t seem that many Tory MPs are listening.
In fact, even many of her own supporters are doubtful that she can make a comeback, and many have labelled her decision to turn up in Manchester as “unhelpful”.
The perhaps unwelcome nature of her speech was not lost on organisers, with host Liam Halligan, business editor at GB News, commenting that the timing of the event an hour before Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s speech might be “seen by some as provocative”.
“Yet she was elected by Tory activists,” he added, to great applause from the room.
In her speech, Ms Truss’s pitch to the Government was simple – cut corporation tax, lift the ban on fracking to reduce energy bills and remove planning red tape to help build 500,000 new homes. All these were things that she had advocated for in her ill-fated tenure in No 10.
Her words received rapturous applause from the room and the ex-PM was crowded by supporters as she left, with one Tory member even asking her to sign a copy of her controversial mini-Budget.
Some have speculated that her appearance was the start of a long-term pitch for the short-lived PM to make a comeback as the libertarian candidate in any future race to succeed her successor Rishi Sunak
Despite the room being packed, however, very few Tory MPs were in attendance, and many of those who did show were suspected of being there to keep an eye on things for Downing Street.
i understands that No 10 got multiple reports from allies inside the room, none of which greatly concerned those around Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Elsewhere at the conference, Tory MPs were largely unimpressed by Ms Truss’s intervention, with even some of her former supports suggesting she should have stayed away.
One senior Tory MP said that Liz Truss needed to “read the fucking room”, but was not concerned about the threat she posed to the party’s electoral prospects.
“She undermines all her own points, it makes the party’s job so much easier,” they said.
A 2019-intake MP, who was previously a Truss supporter, suggested that “now is not the time for division” and that the growth rally was a “distraction”.
“Everyone wants to win the next election, and there’s all these different opinions about how to do it. But I’m not sure theirs is wanted,” they said.
Another MP, who described themselves as “sympathetic” to Ms Truss, simply laughed when asked if she could make a return to the front line in the future.
“We already tried that, didn’t we,” they added.
Even one of her co-headliners at the event, Dame Priti, denied Ms Truss was the leader of their movement, telling i that she “not fronting up” the pro-growth drive.
A Tory MP and former minister in Ms Truss’s government said they would be “gobsmacked” if she ran for leader again and described her as “not influential”.
Dame Priti, however, is being touted as a potential face of the libertarian, low-tax wing of the party, potentially with Sir Jacob in tow as a running mate and fiscally conservative future shadow chancellor.
After the former home secretary surprised MPs by using an interview with i to position herself to the centre of rivals Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch on the European Convention on Human Rights, the ex-minister suggested she may be “smartly” positioning herself as the “reasonable and serious right-winger”.
It is a tactic Kemi Badenoch may also try, although the MP is seen “more Goveite” than a true right-winger.
There are also a number of potential king or queenmakers on the right of the party, but Ms Truss is not seen as one of them.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith as an elder statesman helped Ms Truss get over the line in the leadership contest she won, but could lose his seat at the election.
Ex-Cabinet minister Simon Clarke would be a powerful ally for any right-wing leadership candidate and is seen as a serious thinker who should be at the top table, although he is not expected to run himself, particularly as his support for the green agenda may alienate some.
Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates, who have social views to the right of almost the entire party, are said to be taking in big donations, including £100,000 to pay for staff for their New Conservatives group which has “Red Wall” backing from the likes of Jonathan Gullis, and could be influential.
Sir John Hayes meanwhile can martial the Common Sense Group and is almost certain to back Ms Braverman.
The MP however cautioned that it was difficult to identify who could be a king or queenmaker because the right of the party is “fractured” and “everyone wants to be top dog”.
They also suggested ex-Cabinet minister Sir Brandon Lewis could be a “consensus candidate” who appeals to both One Nation Tories and free market liberals.