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

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser