“She ain’t that great,” said the white-haired man behind me.
He was grousing as Suella Braverman, Home Secretary, entered the Exchange Hall earlier this afternoon to deliver her Conservative conference address. A half-standing ovation greeted her. Braverman’s speech followed a scarcely applauded, limp speech from the Lord Chancellor, Alex Chalk. A warm-up act that left a cold atmosphere in the room.
At conference last year Braverman, new in her great office of state, had picked up where the previous incumbent, Priti Patel, had left off. Both women are beloved of right-wing Conservatives. They said the correct things: illegal migrants (bad!), small boats in the channel (worse!), wokeness (disgusting!), jetting asylum seekers to Rwanda (great!). And at the same time, both women did little to unpick these problems. Small boat crossings increased under Patel. At a cost of millions of pounds to the Exchequer, asylum seekers continue to be housed in hotels under Braverman. They ain’t that great.
But, by the standards of this conference, this was a great speech. It was by the far the most eloquent pitch for the leadership contest that the Tories might be fighting in a year’s time. Braverman has developed rhetorical tricks. She can do Sweet Simpering Concern. She can do Coldly Threatening. She can do Fulminating Prophet. (By contrast, Jeremy Hunt can just do Jeremy Hunt.)
At times, she can do Good Cop and Bad Cop in the same line. Poll after poll, she cooed, had told us the British public’s clear views on migration – poor them, when will they be listened to! – and then, in the next breath, Braverman went all eyes-narrowed, holding-the-lectern stern, as she said the public had these views because: immigration is just too high. Like Malcolm X, Suella will do “whatever it takes” to bring those numbers down.
Otherwise, if the “hurricane” of migration continues, Britain faces dystopia. More poor people, more and more people from poorer and poorer countries would arrive here, and the countryside would be “concreted over”, and our cities would be transformed into “one vast building site” and skyscrapers would be erected “from Eastbourne to Elgin, from Hull to Holyhead” – and even then, said Braverman, with frustration in every drawn out syllable of her silky actress voice, “it still wouldn’t be enough”. They would keep coming. Perhaps skyscrapers would have to be built in towns and cities whose names do not begin with “E” and “H”.
Wasn’t this the Conservatives’ fault? Had they not had 13 long years to do something about this? No, said Braverman. It was all Labour’s fault, and the bleating third sector bad faith actors who backed them, and called good British patriots like the men and women in the auditorium “racist” all the time. Labour had enmeshed our nation in a “dense net” of laws and regulations designed to stop anything practical being done about illegal migration. The Human Rights Act? Not at all. It was, according to Braverman, “The Criminal Rights Act” – cue wild applause and laughter in the room. She would take the abuse that came with saying things like that, she promised. The distortions and insults and lies. Braverman would take it all as a compliment, even being called a racist. All that mattered was the “blunt, unvarnished truth”.
The problem with the left, said Braverman about 20 minutes into the speech, was that it had “luxury beliefs”. These were ideas and values that confer status on the wealthy, but which they never had to bear the cost of believing in. “Our politically correct critics” had money, status, homes in Hampstead, and migrants to push lawn mowers around their spacious, Epicurean gardens. They could believe the seductive lies that are printed in the Guardian about the Home Secretary, because they would never face the downsides of illegal migration, net zero or habitual criminals. The truth was, they had never faced the downsides of anything, not like normal people, and not like Suella Braverman.
There was some truth in this.
Let’s be honest, Braverman said, and kept saying, until it was no longer possible to count how many times she had said “let’s be honest”: let’s be honest about who the enemies of the British people are, she seemed to keep saying throughout the speech. Her words conjured so many ghouls for Halloween. There was Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London. There were charity workers and ivory-tower dwellers. There were foreign national offenders, rapists, nonces and the woke. There was the Labour Party, forcing good, honest coppers to take the knee, and eco idiots preventing hard-working mothers from driving their kids to school.
Here another truth emerged. If the left had its luxury beliefs, then the right had its luxury hostilities. These were beliefs that are printed in the Mail and aired nightly on GB News: well-worked hatreds and frustrations about Britain that, by definition, will always remain hatreds and never be translated by politicians such as the Home Secretary into concrete action. These are aimless hatreds, often directed at the wrong people, that make the hater feel good about themselves and bad about the country they live in.
The audience was swept up in Braverman’s words. Her actions? No flights to Rwanda. No end to the asylum seeker hotels. She has failed this year on her own terms, not ones set by the Labour Party. But the luxury hostilities made the auditorium feel better. And they cost Braverman nothing to put in her speech.
Outside, at the book stall, signing copies of her new 350-page whinge was another home secretary who went on to become prime minister, Theresa May. She used to be a liberal left hate figure too. Today she self-identifies as “woke”. It was a reminder that whatever happens to Braverman – and in the next year quite a bit could happen to her – predicting anything in politics is a mug’s game.