In this week’s New Statesman: The Tory Conference Special

Andrew Gimson on Boris Johnson, Neil O'Brien on the Tories' challenges, David Blanchflower on Osbourne's "porkie pies", and a collectors cover from David Young. PLUS: Sophie Elmhirst profiles Hilary Mantel.

Andrew Gimson: The man who would be king

In our cover story this week:  Andrew Gimson, author of Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson, takes a look at one of the most fascinating relationships in British politics. The “rivalry” between Boris Johnson and David Cameron - which dates backed to their shared school days at Eaton - may seem like a game but Gimson asserts it is deadly serious.

“Boris Johnson is trying to kill David Cameron,” begins Gimson:

“That may sound like an exaggeration, but the word “kill” was used by Johnson himself, in a column about “the basic drama of politics” written soon after the Labour landslide of 1997: “Politics is a constant repetition, in cycles of varying length, of one of the oldest myths in human culture, of how we make kings for our societies, and how after a while we kill them to achieve a kind of rebirth – as Tony Blair would put it, new life for Britain.”

As a society who favours the “theatre of politics” with a taste for the melodramatic, the battle between Dave and Boris pits the establishment against an outsider. It hinges upon the wooing of Conservative backbenchers, many of whom are “fed up” with Cameron. Gimson writes:

I have been taken aback by the vehemence with which many Tories now dislike him. As one of his backbenchers, first elected in 2010 but involved in Tory politics for much longer, put it to me: “I’ve known the man for years. He’s just no good with his backbenchers, just doesn’t want to give them the time of day.

[...]

A third backbencher, first elected in 1992, said: “I regard Boris affectionately and wistfully, because he is someone who makes the party feel good about itself, feel loved. David Cameron seems to go out of his way to make the party not feel loved. I don’t know how Cameron thinks the army of Tories [in the constituencies] is going to fight for him at the next general election. Secretly I’m one of the people who hanker after Boris. He would make the thing such fun. It would be a white-knuckle ride.”

Despite parallel backgrounds, Gimson goes on to points out the differences between the two politicians. On the charm of Boris’ frazzled spontaneity against Dave’s flawless preparedness...

Like many Englishmen, Etonians are seldom inclined to risk making fools of themselves by trying out new activities in public. Cameron is a typical Etonian: he hardly ever looks unprepared. Johnson is, in this and other respects, untypical: he has attracted an adoring public by appearing never to be prepared.

On their alleged Oxford “rivalries”...

At Oxford, the pattern of school repeated itself. Johnson was a well-known figure, regarded by some as a future prime minister – by giving the wittiest speeches, he managed in 1986, at the second attempt, to get himself elected president of the Oxford Union...A friend of Johnson says he would have viewed the idea of going on holiday with Cameron’s set as “atrocious”, and one can be sure the feeling was, and is, mutual. For Johnson, it would have been absurd to regard the younger, less intellectual and seemingly not very dynamic figure of Cameron as a rival.

And on their respective careers in the Commons...

But while Cameron soon began to make a reputation at Westminster as one of the most astute and diligent members of the new intake, Johnson soon came to be regarded by his fellow MPs as lazy, unprofessional and irritatingly well known...The parliamentary path to power was blocked, and so Johnson decided to have a crack at a popularity contest that no other well-known Tory dared to enter. In 2008 he ran for mayor of London against Ken Livingstone and won. For the next four years, he let no chance go by to attack Cameron, and this May Londoners rewarded him with a second victory over Livingstone. Johnson had demonstrated that, unlike Cameron, he is an amazing campaigner who knows how to persuade Labour supporters to vote Conservative. The mayor celebrated his victory by repeatedly upstaging the Prime Minister at the Olympics.

 

Neil O'Brien: The challenge for the Tories is to find their own version of Blairism

In this week’s Guest Column, Policy Exchange director Neil O’Brien numerates the “four main challenges” facing the Tories as their turn to take the stage approaches. First among them is a need to garner votes outside its “southern heartland”. Second is the issue of anti-Tory “urbanites” and the lack of elected councillors in cities like Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle.

Third is the issue of the Tories’ “poor showing” amongst ethnic-minority voters (“Among black voters, fewer than one in ten vote Tory” O’Brien reminds us). All tie into the fourth and long standing issue that “the Conservative Party looks after the interest of the rich, not ordinary people.” He concludes:

In summary, a political consultant or a pollster would tell the party it needs to get less pale, less southern, more urban, and do better among ordinary people. That means changing the look and feel of the party on the one hand, and their policy platform on the other...

Voters want to know the Tories aren’t just going to look after their rich mates. At the next election, Tory candidates need a clearer offering for those who work hard on low incomes; something to say to the fifth of households who live in social housing; and an agenda that makes sense to people in areas of high-unemployment and to the millions who work in public services.

The brilliance of Blairism was to detach the popular parts of Labour’s wish list (such as the minimum wage) from the unpopular items (being soft on crime, defence and public spending). The challenge for the Tories is not so much to lurch right or left, but to come up with an equivalent of Blairism.

 

David Blanchflower: Osborne's lies

In the Economics Column this week, David Blanchflower wonders how George “Slasher” Osborne will “wriggle out” of his austerity mess at the Birmingham Conference this weekend. But before looking forward, he looks back to some of Osborne’s biggest “porkie pies”: 

It seems appropriate to go back and look at the claims Osborne made, in his speech in 2009, about what he would deliver. First, he said that the Tory party would “lead the economy out of crisis”. That could hardly be further from the truth, as the coalition has pushed us into an even deeper crisis. We are in the slowest recovery since the Second World War and are perhaps even headed for a triple dip.”

Second, Osborne argued in 2009 that the Tories would protect public services and claimed: “We are all in this together.” He had the audacity to repeat this phrase seven times. He went on to claim: “Our determination as compassionate Conservatives [is] to protect the most vulnerable.” In truth, the poor are all in it together and the rich are holidaying in the south of France.

He advises the Shadow Chancellor to avoid the similar pitfalls of mistruth:

My main advice to Ed Balls, though, is to stay away from the pork pies. We all know who told “shameful lies”.

 

Rafael Behr: Rumbles of discontent surround the chancellor and his sidekick

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr charts the Tories’ “line of attack” against their leader in opposition:

Tory strategists have let it be known that they intend to torture Ed Miliband to a slow political death with attacks on his personal authority and his party’s alleged addiction to dissolute spending.

It’s “peculiar”, points out Behr, considering Miliband’s explicit commitment to a future Labour’s fiscal restraint, not to mention the Chancellor’s own “moribund” fiscal strategy which has “led to public borrowing bursting out of its intended constraints”.  Discontent brews around George Osborne and his “sidekick” Steve Hilton:

As the Chancellor’s reputation as a strategist has collapsed, his reliance on a young sidekick to run the Treasury has fuelled charges of arrogance and complacency. They are seen as a double act, obsessed with political machination and uninformed about life on the front line of austerity. One senior Lib Dem aide is caustic: “They don’t know any normal people. They don’t know anyone who has claimed benefits."

Liberal Democrats have an obvious reason for presenting Osborne in such callous terms. They hope to fight an election as the guarantors of kind-heartedness in the coalition. However, that ulterior motive doesn’t mean the attack lacks resonance.


Sophie Elmhirst: The unquiet mind of Hilary Mantel

In the week’s NS Profile, Sophie Elmhirst meets the author Hilary Mantel at her home in Devon. Mantel’s novel Bring Up The Bodies is shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, an award she already took home in 2009 for the first instalment of her Tutor trilogy Wolf Hall.  

Mantel speaks candidly about her life, her writing and her battles with physical ill health. Of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, she says, “it was a book in which I felt instantly at home. I felt I’d been waiting all my writing life to get there.”

Though some readers were put off by the book’s style and found its narrative voice confusing, Mantel decided against simplifying her writing, saying, “You simply cannot run remedial classes for people on the page”. Although she knows she will lose readers, she doesn’t mind:

It makes me think that some readers read a book as if it were an instruction manual, expecting to understand everything first time, but of course when you write, you put into every sentence an overflow of meaning, and you create in every sentence as many resonances and double meanings and ambiguities as you can possibly pack in there, so that people can read it again and get something new each time.

And what if she hadn’t become a writer? She says, she:

 ...would just have suppressed that part of my personality. I think I would have put it in a box that I never opened. I’m not sure I would have been happy doing that. Sometimes people ask, does writing make you happy? But I think that’s beside the point. It makes you agitated, and continually in a state where you’re off balance. You seldom feel serene or settled. You’re like the person in the fairy tale The Red Shoes: you’ve just got to dance and dance, you’re never in equilibrium. I don’t think writing makes you happy, not that you asked that question, I’m asking myself. I think it makes for a life that by its very nature has to be unstable, and if it ever became stable, you’d be finished.

In The Critics

In the Critics this week, our lead book reviewer John Gray considers a new collection of interviews with the novelist J G Ballard. The conversations gathered in this book remind us, Gray concludes, that “Ballard’s stories are metaphors, not literal renditions of events – actual or realistically possible … [They are] creations of the imagination that expand our sense of possibility and affirm the renewal of life.”

In the Books interview, Rachel Haliburton talks to A N Wilson about his new novel The Potter’s Hand, based on the life of Josiah Wedgwood. Wilson’s father was a director of the Wedgwood pottery firm and he tells Haliburton that the novel “did come from a deep part of myself. So in that sense, it was very easy to write.”

Also in Books, novelist Margaret Drabble reviews J K Rowling’s first work of fiction for adults, The Casual Vacancy ;Helen Lewis on Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre ; Rebecca Abrams on The City of Abraham by Edward Platt ; Hans Kundnani reviews Gunter Grass’s diary of the year 1990, From Germany to Germany ; PLUS: the NS’s lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson assesses the shortlist for this year’s Man Book Prize.

Our Critic at Large this week is the Russian-born American writer and co-editor of n+1 magazine Keith Gessen. Gessen writes about the friendship between Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, which was the laboratory for Amis’s debut novel Lucky Jim, published in 1954.

Elsewhere: Rachel Cooke praises “Best Possible Taste”, the BBC’s Kenny Everett biopic, Ryan Gilbey reviews “Taken 2”, in which Liam Neeson confirms his transformation into an action hero, and Will Self talks bowel movements and wheat-free sausages in Real Meals.

 

Elsewhere in the magazine

 

  • Dan Hodges on a good speech by Ed Miliband
  • Samira Shackle on Pakistan’s blasphemy laws
  • Jonathan Derbyshire on Eric Hobsbawm.

 

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser