Sketch: Boris gives Dave a light day

The PM looked increasingly relieved as the minutes ticked by, with pledges of support intertwined with Borisisms.

The applause began even before the hair appeared and only intensified as it was followed on stage seconds later by the body that could only be Boris. First out of his seat in welcome was the Prime Minister, whose face clearly displayed how he could not imagine a happier way in which to celebrate his 46th birthday. The ordinaries had been queuing since breakfast to get seats for what promised to be the only bit of fun—apart from welfare-bashing—at this year's Tory party conference, and to get more clues about the leader they have yet to elect in Dave’s place.

Boris confuses Conservatives since he appears to say what they believe, while remaining popular in places where they would dare not go out on their own. So they gathered to see if some of the magic dust would rub off on the rest of them. He also confuses a resurgent Labour Party, unnerved by the change in the Tories' popularity every time the name of Boris is swapped for Dave’s in opinion polls. Finally, he confuses the Tory press for whom he is nowhere nearly nasty enough but still better than the left-wing alternative.

And so he shambled on stage, clutching his speech after an effusive welcome by a 12-year-old called Gavin Barwell, who is astonishingly MP for Croydon Central. Boris had arrived in Brighton last night and, sadly for many, used a speech at an equally packed fringe event to promise total loyalty to his Eton compatriot with a straight face throughout. This had led the many at the conference, for whom Dave has turned out to be a disaster, to hope Boris would turn today into a barely coded rallying cry for an internal election hopefully not far off.

The Prime Minister had been forced out of his birthday bed before dawn to try to head Boris off at the pass by trolling around TV and radio studios reminding the nation he was in charge. Gritted teeth had clearly been flossed as he expressed delight at the appearance of “someone with rock star status” in the Tory Party. He appeared perfectly composed as he declared himself someone with the opposite of tall poppy syndrome. And this composure appeared to have been stapled to his face as he joined the standing ovation that Boris managed to get even before he spoke.

But he had little to worry about in a speech which could well be used as a textual example in future of the triumph of style over substance. As Baldrick may well have said, Boris must have a cunning plan to take over from Dave or none at all, since there were no clues to be found in this half hour. Maybe he thought his success spoke for itself but to do so silently is a dangerous tactic for the recidivists seeking meat to munch and bones to crunch.

He popped out from under his hair, now and again, to remind delegates how well he was doing in London, frightened them slightly by referring to the deserving poor and the living wage and peered out occasionally from under the thatch to crack a joke. He even praised Ken Livingstone for his part in the Olympics—a step too far for most of the now confused delegates —before wandering off into other suspicious areas suggesting cooperation, not confrontation. Was he reminding delegates from the job-starved Midlands and the North, not to mention Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland, that the London way ahead could be neatly transferred. If he was, he was not daft enough to say it.

And so, Dave looked increasingly relieved as the minutes ticked by, with pledges of support intertwined with Borisisms. Then, as suddenly as he appeared, he was gone and the crowd stood up for him again and then  left for lunch obviously unsatisfied. Dave had been asked earlier what Boris could get for his birthday. ”He’s giving me a relatively light day, which is good of him,” he said. Little did he know how true that was.

David Cameron watches Boris Johnson deliver his speech to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.