Why it's Tory hypocrisy not to talk class

Heath, Thatcher, Major and Howard all played the class card

A packed lecture theatre, an esteemed panel and a single plea at this lively Fabian Conference session: "Will the real David Cameron please stand up?" Not a chance.

Despite the appearance of three members of the Conservative family on the panel ("comrades", said a welcoming Gaby Hinsliff) and lots of talk of localism, choice, decentralisation and the "post-bureaucratic state", there was a failure to convince on the central premise.

More notable was the level of political cross-dressing. Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, confessed surprise at how often she found herself agreeing with her fellow-panellist Polly Toynbee, of the Guardian.

Meanwhile, Douglas Carswell, MP for Harwich and Clacton, came out as a staunch supporter of proportional representation. "I wouldn't want a monopoly supermarket or cinema in my town, so why would I want a monopoly on MPs?" he asked the audience, which, once it had digested the message, responded with sustained applause. (For the record, his PR method of choice is single transferable vote.)

Even on class, Dorries declared that it was an issue that "matters more than anything else in British society". Which puts her somewhat at odds with her leader, the subject of the session.

It took our host Sunder Katwala, the Fabian Society's general secretary, to get to the nub of the issue and in turn throw some light on the "real" David Cameron.

Katwala asked why talk of class was verboten in 2010. After all, Conservative leaders have long played the class card, from the grammar school boy Ted Heath, to Margaret Thatcher "the grocer's daughter", to John Major, whose famous trip down memory lane -- or rather down Electric Avenue in Brixton -- formed the basis of a party election broadcast -- and again, most recently, to Michael Howard, who chided Tony Blair across the despatch box, declaring: "This grammar school boy isn't going to take any lessons from a public school boy."

So it was more than a little strange, said Katwala with tongue in cheek, that only now we have an Old Etonian as Tory leader is the question of class off the agenda.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496