Cameron struggles with the Bullingdon question

"We all do stupid things when we're young," says Cameron. Why then "zero tolerance" for the looters?

David Cameron was his usual assured self on this morning's Today programme until Evan Davis asked him the "Bullingdon question". Wasn't the infamous Oxford club (whose idea of a good night out was characterised by Evelyn Waugh as beating a fox to death with champagne bottles) just like the gangs that rioted? An audibly uncomfortable Cameron replied: "we all do stupid things when we're young - and we should learn the lessons." It's notable that Cameron used the same formulation during the 2005 Tory leadership election when he was asked about rumours of past drug use. Indeed, he previously responded to a question about that Bullingdon Club photo by similarly claiming: "we do things when we're young and we deeply regret them". It sounded like an admission of guilt then and it sounds like an admission of guilt now.

But Cameron refused to accept that there was any comparison to be made between the behaviour of the club's members and the rioters. The riots, he said, were "very well organised", which rather invites the response: is disorganised violence acceptable? Cameron's claim that he never saw a restaurant smashed up will also be challenged by some of his university contemporaries. But it was his assertion that "we all do stupid things when we're young" (in fact, some will reply, not all of us) that will prove most damaging. As Cameron said, we learn with age. Why then hand down the most draconian sentences possible? Cameron was in danger of appearing to suggest that it was one rule for the Oxford elite and another for the rest of the society.

This is one subject that the PM would rather never be asked about again. But after his faltering response today, it is certain that he will be.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.