What an extraordinary speech from the sub-Prime Minister yesterday, the unelected head of something that looks very much like an old school right-wing coup. Hyperbole? Hardly.
Our political system has been in failing health for years. Some of it is self-inflicted, more of it is due to the world, and the country, changing, but the system failing to adapt to that. Falling turnouts, weaker party allegiances,wide geographical disparities in economic well-being, combined with fatal over-centralisation have all played a part. It was surely time to ‘take back control’ – to take it back from parties which are unstable coalitions, and above all, to take it back from Westminster and Whitehall.
So it was that I took myself off to the Conservative Party Conference.
What I wanted to find out was – Brexit. What are they thinking? Really, when they are talking amongst themselves? What’s the plan?
I’ll begin with the plan, because that’s really pretty simple. It’s the same as it has always been. Brexit means clinging on to power. Not the power of the nation. Certainly not ‘power to the people’. Power, historically, is the Conservative Party’s drug of choice (possibly supplemented by cocaine, Krug, or gin, allegedly). They are very good at keeping power in their hands.
But of Brexit, most people seemed to be keeping their mouths shut. And for good reason, because when they did speak about Brexit, they tended to speak in the same slogans and cliches, and bullying swagger, as during the referendum campaign. Details, costings, strategies – they simply didn’t figure. The single conversation on strategy that I overheard whilst waiting for the airhead former DEFRA secretary, Owen Paterson, to speak was an anxious discussion of how to head off demands for a second referendum if things began to go ‘wrong’.
Let me stress the point of that anecdote. They were discussing how to play a narrow political game. They were not discussing any substantive matter relating to either the process or the ‘value’ they thought might be obtained from leaving the European Union. This is ‘politics for politics sake’, not philosophical conviction, or policy detail. It is how to outwit your perceived enemy at any given moment of weakness.
So let’s look at some of the stuff that was actually said. “We are all Brexiters now!” A lot of people said that. A lot of times. Probably more than they said “Brexit means Brexit.”
It was also said – I know of no source for this – that “90% of Leave voters would have no objection to a family member marrying a Remain voter, but almost all Remain voters would object to a close relative marrying a Leave voter”. It doesn’t sound remotely plausible to me, but it does indicate a mindset which wants to normalise the Quit people, and demonise Remainers.
John Redwood claimed that “only 10% of Remain voters wholeheartedly support the EU project” and that all the rest of us would move towards the Brexit position as it “proves to be a success”.
The Adam Smith Institute (at a meeting with the best food and most plentiful wine) issued a report on border security after Brexit which claimed that a massive government IT project to integrate border control systems (The Warning Index and Semaphore) using fingerprint scanning would make for a watertight system of controls. They did acknowledge the bleeding obvious – that government IT projects had a poor record of success – but they claimed that this was down to government ‘micromanagement’. Their preferred model, repeatedly name-checked, was AirBnb. It was an heroic and doomed effort to integrate the free market principles that the Institute claims to espouse, with hi-tech draconian border control, but essentially their idea didn’t seem to add up to much more than a sixth form project.
Nicky Morgan seemed to be spoiling for a fight, but alas, the wrong Johnson was in the room. Rachel Johnson, who managed to attack all the men in her family (fair enough), tried to goad Morgan into saying something fit for her Daily Mail column about Brexit, but Morgan confined herself to the expectation that ‘gender equality laws’ would not be endangered by Brexit.
Morgan’s expectation was not supported elsewhere. Owen Paterson, Charlie Elphicke, John Redwood, and other Brexiters demanded a bonfire of “silly” workplace rights. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
The best speaker on Brexit (at least in the sessions I attended) was Vicky Pryce, the economist. In a hostile room, she rebutted Elphicke’s assertion that “We are all Brexiters now” with a sharp “I’m still with the 48%”.
Pryce was on magnificent form. She attributed the absence of instant recession after the vote to the sterling work done by Mark Carney and the Bank of England on the morning after, when Cameron resigned, and Osborne went missing. She spoke of Carney’s decision to sink £150 billion into propping up the economy. She contrasted the spending of £60 billion a month on QE with the paltry £8 billion a year on the EU. When challenged over the IMF raising its forecast for British growth this year, she replied that it had raised it by 0.1%, whilst further cutting the forecast for next year. There was a number attached to everything she said – unlike any other speaker I heard.
Also impressive in that meeting was Professor Anand Menon, Director of The UK in a Changing Europe, who outlined what he thought was May’s political strategy. A strategy not for negotiating a ‘successful’ exit from the EU, but for finessing the damage electorally. Depressing stuff.
Indeed, the much derided academics and ‘experts’ – Tony Travers of the LSE deserves a mention here – were the only people who really seemed to have their eyes wide open to what was going on.
So, having attended the Tory conference before, what had changed?
It was very clear to me that a lot has changed for the party. The globalists were licking their wounds, for whether pro-EU, like the Cameroons and Osbornists, or anti- like Redwood, Hannan, et al – they were on the back foot, unsure of how to proceed, and exceptionally peeved at their unanticipated exclusion from the top table.
C List ‘talents’, like Paterson, IDS, Davis, Fox were swaggering around like Donald Trump on viagra – a sight as ugly as that sounds. I was in one meeting when, through an open door at the end of my row, I caught a glimpse of Priti Patel walking by. It brought to mind a quote I read in Barbara Castle’s diaries, when Castle, describing Margaret Thatcher, said “I know that look. She is in love. In love with power, and with herself”.
And so the party has gone from Blue Chip (the big corporates were flashing far less cash at this conference than in the past), to BLUKIP.
Which returns us to May’s speech, and that of her successor in the Home Office. This is no longer an economically liberal party. Nor is it a socially liberal one. It is dangerously close to looking like a right-wing populist party along the lines of the Front National. But those other forces haven’t gone away, and May’s majority is slim, and may be further reduced (let us hope). It is not in a good place. Nor is the country.