The Tory right shows its muscle

An encounter with the Jurassic wing of the Conservative Party

From the Conservative conference

Away from the pastel colours and soft furnishings of the conference hall, a packed fringe meeting held by the Thatcherite Bruges Group felt like a foreign land. Here, Enoch Powell was right, Section 28 should be restored, and Britain is no longer a self-governing power. With more than 600 people in attendance, the largest meeting I've seen all conference season, the Tory right showed its muscle.

The ostensible motion was: "Are the political parties failing the voters of Britain?" But the meeting was inevitably dominated by the view that the Conservative Party had failed the people of Britain over Europe. Even before the speeches began, a cartoon depicting Margaret Thatcher as Queen Boudicca riding out of Brussels prompted waves of applause.

There were almost xenophobic levels of contempt for David Cameron's pledge to ring-fence overseas aid. The speakers, including the Daily Telegraph's Simon Heffer and the Mail on Sunday's Peter Hitchens, all forcefully declared that public spending should be cut across the board. But they at least followed the logic of their position: dramatically reducing the size of the public sector will lead to a surge in unemployment. David Cameron has promised a bonfire of the quangos in all but name while vowing to "get Britain back to work" at the same time. Labour must expose this contradiction far more successfully than it has done.

Heffer was also right to point out that Cameron cannot simply "unpick" the Lisbon Treaty after ratification, with no desire among the other 26 states to renegotiate areas such as justice and home affairs. "There is no middle way," he declared, and called for a referendum on EU membership.

At an earlier fringe meeting on Europe I saw the Sun's associate editor Trevor Kavanagh watch Ken Clarke like a hawk. He later harangued the shadow business secretary over the "anti-democratic" European Union.

It's worth remembering that it was the tabloid's fury over Clarke's return to the shadow cabinet that prompted Cameron's decision to appoint the Eurosceptic William Hague as his de facto deputy. With even Daniel Hannan conceding that a retrospective referendum on the Lisbon Treaty would be "silly", support is growing for the alternative of a referendum on EU membership. If Cameron is elected, I expect the Sun to lead the charge.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.