Reflections from Manchester

Are the Tories "ready"?

The weather over the Labour and Conservative conferences was the reverse of the parties' moods. In Brighton, Labour gathered amid a sense of panic but bathed in seaside sun. Here in Manchester, the mood is calmer as the Tories prepare for power in the dreary autumn rain.

Are the Tories right to be upbeat? On the face of it, yes. David Cameron has carefully and skilfully led his party through a period of success not seen for ten years. As I discuss in my column tomorrow, he has done so without abandoning ideology, unlike the Labour Party when it was modernising itself.

George Osborne's speech on the economy yesterday was well received, his uncharismatic style compensated for by the realism and modesty of his message.

But beneath the gloss, this is the same old party: on the fringes, delegates express predictable views on immigration, Europe and spending. Their spectacles may have thicker and trendier rims, but Tory members remain overwhelmingly male and -- in the description of one broadcast journalist yesterday -- "hideously white".

On the other hand, although this party has not changed substantially, there is almost zero dissent or division. With victory perceived to be round the corner, this is the most united Tory conference I can remember. Eurosceptics are careful not to be provoked into deriding Cameron's own-goal on a Lisbon Treaty referendum. And MPs on the pro-European left are passive. The Tory Reform Group/Conservative Mainstream fringe has in recent years been a hotbed of rebellion and dissent, with Kenneth Clarke or Michael Heseltine challenging the leadership. This year a supportive Damian Green was on loyal form, refuting claims that Cameron has betrayed the Tory left. Steve Norris, the arch-moderniser, expressed genuine support for Cameron's leadership on and off the record. And it was left to Normal Lamont to say Labour could yet pull off an economic and then political recovery.

The Tories appear to be ready to take office. But there is something indefinably wrong here. Something about the collective psche that betrays complacency. This is a professional party, but it is not a government-in-waiting.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.