Yet to seal the deal

Manchester was a brutal and sometimes chaotic week, but the prospects for the forthcoming Conservati

After the three week conference season people might be forgiven for suffering from conference fatigue. Many will be trying to battle the effects of a Labour party conference which at times appeared to be a cross between the Japanese survival game show Endurance, and during all the standing ovations, a Jane Fonda work-out video. Manchester was a brutal and sometimes chaotic week, but the prospects for the forthcoming Conservative conference are altogether different. My party has not gathered in for our main conference in Birmingham for 75 years, and it is with a great deal of vim and vigour that we head towards the second city.

En route to Birmingham, delegates will travel through constituency after constituency of target seats for the next General Election. If we are to win, the voters in the Midlands will be one of the key audiences that we will have to convince we can be trusted in government.

This will be my 38th conference, and I have come to realise that each one has its own mood and personality. I have a sneaking suspicion that this year will be one of focus and determination. It is true that the party’s prospects and the opinion polls look extremely encouraging but talking to councillors and activists as I tour the country, none seem prepared to take their eye off the job in hand, regardless of what the opinion polls might suggest. “Let’s take nothing for granted” is the message I hear time after time.

There is no doubt that the challenge we face this week is to prove to the British public that we have the ideas and the solutions to address the problems facing our country. We must explain our programme for change to rebuild our battered economy, renew our public services, and repair our ‘broken’ society. It is not enough for us to wait for Labour to lose the General Election, we must show that we are capable of governing the country.

As David Cameron has already said, we are yet to seal the deal with the electorate. They want to know that we have a leader who can cope with the challenges we face as a country and that we as a party have the energy and the solutions to begin to address them as a matter of urgency. The success of this week will be judged by how we as a party demonstrate our readiness and ability to make the right decisions.

I am convinced that unlike Labour’s week of infighting, disunity and uncertainty, our conference will show a Shadow Cabinet that is working as a team and fizzing with ideas, a party upbeat and focused, and a trim and efficient organisation in better condition to fight an election that in any time in a generation. One conference does not win an election, but this conference in Birmingham could go a long way to convincing the public that we are ready and worthy of their trust.

Eric Pickles is Conservative MP for Brentwood and Ongar and spokesman for Communities and Local Government
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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