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: 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.