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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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition