O come all ye faithful

Wind-turbines turn to face the wind. Sunflowers turn to face the sun. Will the British public turn o

I don’t know whether it was the stark lighting in the ballroom of the Winter Gardens at Blackpool or the giant backdrop of green trees and blue sky, but when George Osborne strode out onto the stage soon after mid-day, he looked perfectly plausible as a Chancellor-in-waiting. He seemed taller, a bit heavier, his voice fuller, more authoritative. What’s more, he had some real red meat for an audience desperate for some solid fare.

When he told the Conference he was going to exempt houses worth up to £1 million from inheritance tax, there was a sudden current of excitement in the hall. A well-dressed lady, possibly from Kensington and Chelsea, sitting near me groaned: “a million isn’t nearly enough!” She probably hoped, as others did, that Osborne would promise to abolish IHT altogether. But for most people Osborne’s pledge on death duty, coupled with a promise to remove stamp-duty for first-time buyers of houses costing less than £250,000, pressed all the right buttons.

Will the Osborne bounce and the anticipated Cameron bounce tomorrow be enough to counter the Brown bounce? Certainly, here in Blackpool, election fever is in the air. I had a drink with David Heathcoat Amory, long-serving MP for Wells. “Wells is ready” he told me. “The posters are printed!”

Heathcoat Amory believed that foot-and-mouth could throw a spanner in the works. “You can hardly hold an election with the country in lock-down mode.”

For the afternoon social policy debate, I found myself sitting next to Orlando Fraser. As the delegates gathered, he surprised me and others nearby by shouting “Cameron, Cameron!” and gesticulating vigorously. Orlando has never been backward about coming forward but it turned out on this occasion he was trying to attract the attention of a gentleman called Cameron Watts, a stalwart of Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice.

Orlando has been chairing one of the policy panels. Many of us hope that, after having fought a brilliant, though ultimately unsuccessful, fight to regain North Devon from the Liberal Democrats, Orlando will soon return to the fray. If Boris becomes Mayor of London on May 1 next year, perhaps Orlando could have a shot at Henley?

Talking of Boris, I have to admit to my shame that I missed his apparently well-received speech to the Conference. Multi-tasking, I was in Paris where Leo, one of Boris’ brothers, was celebrating his 40th birthday. But I caught up with my eldest son at a fringe meeting, where he was his usual exuberant self.

“I want a greener London” he proclaimed to a packed auditorium, “a London where more trees are being planted than cut down and I want us all to have the confidence to cycle!”

Sir Roger (Dr.)Bannister (who in his seventies probably still runs faster than most of us can cycle) recently pointed out to me that one of the advantages of cycling is that it restricts the flow of blood to the testicles, thus reducing fertility. Given the degree of “people-congestion” in London, this seems another excellent reason to promote the bicycle. I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to mention this to Boris in Blackpool.

Blackpool itself is fairly bicycle-free. It has those famous trams, gliding along the promenade.Even trams have a carbon footprint, of course. Walking back to my hotel at the end of a long day, I ran into an old friend, Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth. It was a wonderful balmy evening, with the sun setting splendidly over the Irish Sea. Tony nodded approvingly at the cluster of giant wind-turbines, rising out of the water on the horizon. “They turn to face the wind” Tony explained, “just as sunflowers turn to face the sun”.

Will the great British public, I wonder, turn their heads once again to the Conservative Party at the end of this Conference week? We must live in hope.

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder