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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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.