Sketch: sickly George fails to rouse the Tory faithful

Even mentioning Margaret Thatcher brought the Chancellor only desultory applause.

As befits someone whose career had crashed and burned in just six months, he arrived looking like he had come straight from being sick in the toilets. White-faced, rictus grin in place, the Chancellor of the Exchequer stumbled onto the stage at the Tory Party conference looking as if he had been propelled from the wings by some erstwhile friend.
 
The Birmingham venue for the conference is an unhappy looking place reminiscent of the City Varieties in Leeds, where the BBC used to run a music hall programme for those whose careers were dipping. So perhaps it was fitting that the man who had once hoped to follow BF Dave to the top job in British politics should be forced to face his former friends in such a spot.
 
The Prime Minister himself slipped in just seconds before George started to speak, following a vain attempt to warm up the audience by MP Michael Fallon, recently promoted to the government for being able to find good things to say about the Tories on anything from Newsnight to Match of the Day. M Fallon had trotted out three company bosses to explain just how successful the government was proving and the conference, which loves bosses and success, ate it up.
 
Further attempts to deflect attention were made by the man who almost ran the Olympics, shortly to join the government via the House of Lords, who spoke of his desire to bring joined-up thinking to Whitehall. (He is not to be confused with Seb Coe, who did run the Olympics, and who will be brought out on Wednesday to ease the way into the PM's speech.)
 
But it was still as chilly as a Saturday night out in Newcastle as the Chancellor started to speak. The conference is used to being warmed up by ritual denunciation of hate figures like Bob Crow or anybody else the Daily Mail dislikes but George remarkably chose one of their own to try and ease himself off the hook.
 
Former Tory PM Ted Heath was dissed to death as the Chancellor declared that giving into the unions and bending under pressure was not his way. Instead it was the toughness of the Tory PM who followed, Margaret Thatcher, that he intended to follow. Mentioning Mrs T at a Tory Party conference is usually a "get-out of-jail" free card, but even this brought George only desultory applause.
 
He managed to get them going a bit with a bash at those on benefits, but lost them again when he said the rich might have to pay some more. The audience clapped when he said no to a mansion tax but squirmed when he mentioned the poor. And they positively withered away when, for some reason, which will clearly only become obvious when the deals with the Lib Dems are done, he decided to pay them credit. "We could have done none not it without the coalition, " he said and at least six people applauded.
 
There were several more low points in his speech as he reminded them that the hard times were not over by a long shot, that more cuts were needed and that the Hubble Space Telescope would be needed to see the sunlit uplands. By now, the panicked Chancellor must have thought all of his audience were either rolling their eyes or staring off into space as no-one had apparently realised the effect of sticking the big screen, onto which his twitching body was projected, 10 feet above his head. And so, underwhelmed by applause, he finally stopped rather than finished, wisely paused for only five seconds for the official standing ovation and left just before the big hook appeared from the wings to drag him off.
 
Chancellor George Osborne delivers his speech during the second day of the annual Conservative 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
Show Hide image

What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.