Sketch: no laughs from serious Dave

Tory delegates wriggled uncomfortably as their leader told them tough times were still ahead.

It was the sudden appearance of Charles Montgomery Burns, masquerading as the Mayor of New York, which offered a clue that this would be a Prime Ministerial speech with a difference. The job of any Tory party leader on the last day of conference has traditionally been to send delegates out onto the streets, jaws dripping with blood after being fed the raw meat of intolerance for an hour.

But David Cameron turned that on its head this morning, with sixty minutes that left them confused and a danger to any plump passers by. The PM had already adopted the now traditional route of putting out today's speech yesterday to allow those turning up to know in advance most of what he was going to say. Those who did decide to make the effort had obviously come expecting to be sent to whatever counts as the barricades in Tory Party circles. But the omens were bad from the start, when reports started to come in claiming there were more people queuing at Birmingham New Street for trains out of town than for seats for their leader's words of wisdom.

After the Mayor of London had spent yesterday feeding delegates out of his hands, you could see they were somewhat confused by the sudden emergence of his New York counterpart, Michael Bloomberg, as official warm-up man for their leader. Where Boris had them rolling in the aisles, Michael could only manage them rolling their eyes as he rolled through an ad for his city and a couple more for the PM.

Whether this was a cunning plan to bore them into submission or to set the speaking bar so low that even Lassie could qualify, was yet to be seen as Mr B tottered off and the lights were thankfully lowered. By now, delegates were so confused that they broke into applause for the scene shifters as they swooped in to replace one lectern with another and polish up Dave's autocue. The Prime Ministerial minders had already let it be known that today's speech would be serious words for serious times and when he finally arrived on stage, fashionably late, his pallor gave off that intention - although he had also been for an infamous Birmingham balti the night before.

And from the off, it was clear he did not intend to play this one for laughs and delegates wriggled uncomfortably as he told them tough times are still ahead. He mentioned Chancellor George, happily escaped abroad, and they sat on their hands. He half-heartedly pressed a couple of the usual buttons, welfare and trade unions, which would normally bring them to their feet but they shuffled into hardly more than polite applause.

Having been stung by Ed Miliband's constant reminders that he leads the party of the rich - much to the satisfaction of many delegates - he said he didn't look at the label on the tin but what was in it. As some turned to their neighbours for guidance, the PM declared he was not here to defend privilege but to spread it and that at last provoked the first stirrings of enthusiasm from his listeners. Cut-aways by the TV cameras showed his cabinet desperately trying to show interest, none more so than new Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, whose appointment must surely have caused as much confusion to Tory Party activists as the rest of the country. 

The purpose of the speech, we were told earlier, was to mark out the Tories as the party of the "strivers" and certainly by now many were striving to look interested. With the appointed hour now finally up, and Dave's throat possibly affected by balti burn, it was left to newly-appointed minister Anna Soubry to be first to her feet to lead the spontaneous standing ovation booked for such occasions.

Dave quickly gathered up Sam Cam and was out of the door before anyone changed their mind. "It's not where you come from the counts, it's where you're going," he had said minutes earlier in his speech - and he wasn't telling us.

David Cameron delivers his speech at 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: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder