Conference 2010 Lookahead | Tuesday 21 September

The who, when and where of the Lib Dem conference.

Look out for

Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, will be speaking at 12:20. His appearance will be of particular interest to the media, owing to his status as the Lib Dems' most outspoken internal critic.

However, as Olly Grender pointed out in an update from the conference yesterday evening, the signs so far are that the "Simon-watchers" are going to be disappointed. In his fringe appearances, Hughes has refrained from overt criticism of the coalition, secure in the knowledge that one iota of perceived dissent could dominate headlines for days.

Nevertheless, Hughes' speech today will be worth watching, if only to see how he treads the line between offering support to his now-ministerial colleagues and while still addressing the misgivings of his audience.

Signs of trouble?

A policy motion this morning entitled "Ensuring Fairness in a Time of Austerity" should prompt some lively debate. James Graham, founder of the Social Liberal Forum, is to propose the motion, which seeks to ensure that "those with the broadest shoulders carry the greatest burden" during economically straightened times. But with the VAT rise and welfare cuts on the horizon, quite how this goal will be achieved remains to be seen. An amendment has also been tabled on the hot topic of "progressive cuts" -- it will be interesting to see how far delegates are prepared to defend their coalition partners' proposals.

On the fringe

Following on from yesterday's controversy over the Free Schools policy motion, the New Statesman is hosting a fringe event on this very subject: Will schools have too much freedom in a "big society"? Duncan Hames MP and Russell Hobby, General Secretary, National Association of Head Teachers, join the New Statesman's Spencer Neal for the debate. More details here.

Conference timetable

09:00 - 09:55 Policy Motion: Localism

09:55 - 10:15 Speech: Lord McNally

10:15 - 11:20 Policy Motion: Ensuring Fairness in a Time of Austerity

11:20 - 12:20 Policy Motion: Equal Marriage in United Kingdom

12:20 - 12:40 Speech: Simon Hughes MP

14:30 - 15:15 Question and Answer Session: Public Services and Benefits

15:15 - 15:35 Speech: Chris Huhne MP

15:35 - 16:05 Emergency Motion: Pakistan Floods

16:05 - 16:35 Topical Issue: Building A Low Carbon Economy

16:35 - 16:55 Presentation: Liberal Democrat Group on Fife Council

16:55 - 17:35 Reports: Parliamentary Parties of the Liberal Democrats

17:35 - 18:00 Constitutional Amendment: Election of Local Authority Councillors to Federal Committees, Constitutional Amendment: Substitution for the Leader on the Federal Policy Committee

Full conference timetable here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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