Live Blog: Brown's speech

Minute-by-minute coverage of the Prime Minister's conference speech from 2:30pm

I'll be blogging on Gordon Brown's keynote speech to the Labour Party conference from 2:30pm. Can he top Peter Mandelson's virtuoso performance yesterday?

14:27 A surprise as Sarah Brown appears on stage to introduce her husband. Most thought that last year's appearance was a one-off.

She says that the pair will be together "for all times".

"He's messy, he's noisy and he gets up at a terrible hour . . . but I know that he loves our country. And I know that he will always put you first."

14:34 Brown begins: "We've changed the world before and we'll change the world again." Picking up where Mandelson left off yesterday, he says the party must "fight to win".

14:35 Brown pays tribute to his "closest friend and brilliant deputy leader", Harriet Harman, and commends her Equalities Bill.

14:37 Praise for Alistair Darling and Peter Mandelson. "The Labour Party has really learned to love you," he says of Mandelson.

A decent joke: "I go to America and people ask how the special relationship is going. I say that Peter and I are getting on fine."

14:40 Twice declares that Labour's economic policies benefit the "hard-working majority and not just the privileged few".

14:42 Says Labour chose "internationalism over isolation" by supporting a G20 agreement that will save "15 million jobs".

14:42 Attack on the Tories begins. Brown says Cameron's party made the "wrong choice on Northern Rock, the wrong choice on jobs and spending, the wrong choice on mortgage support and the wrong choice on working with Europe".

"The only thing about their policy that is consistent is that they are consistently wrong."

14:45 An effective critique of neoliberalism: "What let the world let down last autumn was not just bankrupt institutions, but a bankrupt ideology. What failed was the Conservative idea that markets always self-correct but never self-destruct." Brown at his most left-wing. The hall laps this up.

14:47 Brown discusses his family's personal debt to comprehensive education and the NHS. Describes the NHS as "the best insurance policy in the world". Rebuts the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan's attack on the service: "It has not been a 60-year mistake, it has been a 60-year liberation."

14:57 Promises a new "Fiscal Responsibility Act" to enshrine Labour's deficit reduction targets in law.

Pledges "to raise taxes at the very top" to protect and improve front-line services.

14:59 Attacks the Tories' spending plans: "These are not cuts they would make because they have to, but cuts they would make because they want to."

None of the personal attacks on Cameron's leadership we've heard in the past. Brown has stuck to a robust critique of Conservative economic policies.

15:02 Pledges to increase the minimum wage. Reminds the hall that it was "one of the achievements of Tony Blair" and thanks the former prime minister.

15:03 Promises that child benefit and tax credits will continue to rise. Announces that the government will fund 250,000 free childcare places for two-year-olds.

15:05 On teenage pregnancy: "It cannot be right for a girl of 16 to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat and then be left alone."

Brown promises that all 16- and 17-year-olds with children will now be placed in a network of supervised homes.

15:06 The much-discussed section on antisocial behaviour begins. Warns that parents whose children receive Asbos will "pay the price" unless their children's behaviour changes. It's assumed this means cutting off state benefits.

15:08 Local authorities are to be given new powers to restrict 24-hour drinking in their area.

15:10 Applause as Brown confirms that there will be no compulsory ID cards for British citizens.

15:11 A vigorous defence of the Union as Brown attacks the "separatists and nationalists" who would "sever the common bonds" that hold the country together.

15:12 Praise for British troops in Afghanistan prompts a standing ovation and the loudest applause so far.

15:13 Brown repeats his claim that Britain's military presence in Afghanistan ensures terrorism will not come to the nation's streets again.

15:14 An appeal to Iran to "join the international community now or face isolation".

15:15 Reaffirms Labour's commitment to raise international development spending to 0.7 per cent of GDP. The pledge will now be enshrined in law.

15:19 Promises to combine social care and NHS services to create a new local care system.

15:22 Moves on to constitutional reform and the expenses scandal. "Just as I say that the market needs morals, I also say that politics needs morals.

"Never again should a member of parliament be more interested in the value of their allowances than in the value of their constituents."

Brown promises to give constituents the right to recall MPs guilty of financial corruption.

15:24 Announces that Labour's next manifesto will include a commitment to hold a referendum on the introduction of the Alternative Vote (AV) system early in the next parliament. Ends speculation that a referendum will be held on election day.

Brown vows to end the hereditary principle in the House of Lords "once and for all" and declares his support for an elected second chamber. But there's no mention of a written constitution.

15:28 Returns to his central attack on the Conservatives: "The financial crisis forced them to show their hand and they showed that they had no heart."

15:31 A coded reference to the election: "There is nothing in life which is inevitable; it is about the change you choose."

15:32 Brown ends by urging Labour "to fight, to win, to serve", having promised that "because the task is difficult the triumph will be even greater".

Verdict:

A strong speech that eschewed personal attacks on David Cameron's leadership in favour of a critique of conservative ideology. The Tory leader wasn't even mentioned. Nor were the Liberal Democrats. Was this mere indifference, or is Brown reluctant to criticise Labour's potential coalition partner?

Brown's attack on the "bankrupt ideology" of neoliberalism was convincing, but as chancellor he presided over a lightly regulated City. His claim that the Conservative Party would "do nothing" lacks credibility and overshadows his more effective arguments. Voters are still likely to blame Labour for the economic crisis and give them little credit for the recovery.

After this speech it's clear that departments such as Defence and Transport will bear the brunt of spending cuts. Brown made no new pledges in those areas but did promise to maintain support for schools, hospitals and the police.

He did well to promise cost-free constitutional reform, more suitable in these straitened times. His decision to back a recall mechanism for errant MPs was a genuine innovation. He was right to bury the idea of an election-day referendum on voting reform, which would have drawn attention away from the main choice. But reformists will be angered by his rejection of proportional representation.

The unambiguous pledge to remove all hereditary peers from the House of Lords was welcome, yet it was surprising that Brown didn't promise a written constitution to underline this new settlement.

His populist pledge to remove state benefits from the parents of troublesome teenagers was a crude reversion to New Labour's old habit of headline-chasing.

The speech was competent and passionate enough to ensure that Brown will lead Labour into the general election, but it will change little beyond this. Those figures, including Alan Johnson, who declared that the Prime Minister needed to make "the speech of his life" forget that leaders' speeches very rarely change the political weather; they merely reflect and occasionally reinforce it.

Best line: "What failed was the Conservative idea that markets always self-correct but never self-destruct."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”