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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.