Conservative chairman Grant Shapps speaks at the party's conference. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories' claim to be the "Workers' Party" is just another cheap rebrand

Just as earlier iterations have faded fast, so too will this blue collar phase pass unnoticed and unloved.

"There are 47 per cent of the people who will vote for the President (Obama) no matter what....47 per cent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement....My job is not to worry about those people."

That was the moment when right-wing Republican, Mitt Romney, speaking at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser in a hedge fund manager’s mansion, finally blew any chance he had of winning the White House in 2012. Telling half of America that he wasn’t interested in them or their vote wasn’t the smartest move, of course, but it was a revealing acknowledgement by Romney of how little appeal the austerian right has to blue collar workers in the US. Of course, there’s no straightforward read-across from American politics to our own, but there’s been more than a whiff of Romney-esque high-handedness in some recent comments here, and a hint of panic in yesterday’s risible re-launch of the Tories as the "Workers’ Party".

First there was the blundering reference by Tory peer, Lord Howell, to the "uninhabited and desolate" areas of the north east – fit only for fracking, it appears. Then the acknowledgement by working-class Tories’ poster-boy, John Major, that parts of Great Britain are now "no-go areas" for his Conservative successors. Finally, and most extraordinary, was the comment made after the Wythenshawe by-election by a senior Tory that they couldn’t possibly hope to win in Manchester as is it was "a safe Labour seat with the largest council estate in Europe."

Pause and think for a moment about just how telling – and how toxic – that sentiment is. Forget about Mitt Romney’s dismissal of the 47 per cent, what about the eight million British citizens living on estates that this Tory Party has apparently given up on? Perhaps, David Cameron, another close watcher of US politics, thinks it isn’t his job to worry about "those people".

Some in the Tories (perhaps the handful who didn’t go to Eton) are less sanguine, however. Robert Halfon, the Tory MP for Harlow, has long argued that blue collar needs to replace blue rinse in the hierarchy of Tory influence. And Mr Halfon has clearly been heard, because his standard has been picked up this week by no less than the chairman of his party. Grant Shapps, aka Michael Green, has announced that Compassionate Conservatism, Liberal Conservatism, and even Green Conservatism are all so last year, and that Blue Collar Conservatism is the only thing for a modern Tory to sport around town. Even more amusingly and implausibly, Mr Shapps (who patently knows a thing or two about branding), says the Tory Party is now the "Workers' Party" – "not defending privilege, but spreading it".

The problem for the Tories, of course, is no-one believes this tripe for a minute. No-one believes that a party which cut taxes for millionaires while millions struggle to pay their bills can ever be on the side of workers. And no-one will believe that a party which, time after time, stands up for crony capitalists and corporate, vested interests can ever truly work in the interests of working men and women – and of those seeking work or unable to work too. No, it is only One Nation Labour that can credibly reach out to all parts of Britain, standing up for people in all communities with a plan to tackle David Cameron’s cost-of-living- crisis.

That’s why the Tories barely scraped 15 per cent of the vote in Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election. That’s why of the 348 council seats in Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Manchester, none is held by Conservatives. And why the north east boasts just two Tory MPs, Wales just eight out of 40, and Scotland just one (making them famously rarer than mating pairs of pandas). And those harsh electoral realities are the reason why most Tories don’t believe it either, with the leadership reportedly split about whether to make special appeal to the workers of the north and west or to cut them adrift as a Tory lost cause.

Little matter, as I suspect this latest rebrand will last no longer than any of its predecessors. Their uniting feature is that none of them are credible to those outside the Tory Party and none of them believed within it. And just as those earlier iterations have faded fast, to be replaced by the true face of David Cameron’s Tories, standing up only for a privileged few, so too will this blue collar phase pass unnoticed and unloved. Still, with a chairman as inventive as Mr Shapps, you know there’ll be another make over coming soon. Tea Party Tories has got a ring to it, Grant, and a ring of truth too.

Owen Smith is a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

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Beware, hard Brexiteers - Ruth Davidson is coming for you

The Scottish Conservative leader is well-positioned to fight. 

Wanted: Charismatic leader with working-class roots and a populist touch who can take on the Brexiteers, including some in the government, and do so convincingly.

Enter Ruth Davidson. 

While many Tory MPs quietly share her opposition to a hard Brexit, those who dare to be loud tend to be backbenchers like Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan. 

By contrast, the Scottish Conservative leader already has huge credibility for rebuilding her party north of the border. Her appearances in the last days of the EU referendum campaign made her a star in the south as well. And she has no qualms about making a joke at Boris Johnson’s expense

Speaking at the Institute of Directors on Monday, Davidson said Brexiteers like Nigel Farage should stop “needling” European leaders.

“I say to the Ukip politicians, when they chuckle and bray about the result in June, grow up,” she declared. “Let us show a bit more respect for these European neighbours and allies.”

Davidson is particularly concerned that Brexiteers underestimate the deeply emotional and political response of other EU nations. 

The negotiations will be 27 to 1, she pointed out: “I would suggest that macho, beer swilling, posturing at the golf club bar isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

At a time when free trade is increasingly a dirty word, Davidson is also striking in her defence of the single market. As a child, she recalls, every plate of food on the table was there because her father, a self-made businessman, had "made stuff and sold it abroad". 

She attacked the Daily Mail for its front cover branding the judges who ruled against the government’s bid to trigger Article 50 “enemies of the people”. 

When the headline was published, Theresa May and Cabinet ministers stressed the freedom of the press. By contrast, Davidson, a former journalist, said that to undermine “the guardians of our democracy” in this way was “an utter disgrace”. 

Davidson might have chosen Ukip and the Daily Mail to skewer, but her attacks could apply to certain Brexiteers in her party as well. 

When The Staggers enquired whether this included the Italy-baiting Foreign Secretary Johnson, she launched a somewhat muted defence.

Saying she was “surprised by the way Boris has taken to the job”, she added: “To be honest, when you have got such a big thing happening and when you have a team in place that has been doing the preparatory work, it doesn’t make sense to reshuffle the benches."

Nevertheless, despite her outsider role, the team matters to Davidson. Part of her electoral success in Scotland is down the way she has capitalised on the anti-independence feeling after the Scottish referendum. If the UK heads for a hard Brexit, she too will have to fend off accusations that her party is the party of division. 

Indeed, for all her jibes at the Brexiteers, Davidson has a serious message. Since the EU referendum, she is “beginning to see embryos of where Scotland has gone post-referendum”. And, she warned: “I do not think we want that division.”

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.