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6 October 2016

From sovereignty to cities: what we learned at Tory party conference

Getting lost in Birmingham, the bad taste of hard Brexit, and why Theresa May is her own brain.

By Stephen Bush

This year’s party conferences have something in common: a surfeit of MPs who are uncertain where they should go next. In Liverpool, the aimlessness was metaphorical, brought on by Jeremy Corbyn’s second successive victory. In Birmingham, it was because the International Convention Centre, where the Conservatives’ annual bash was held, seems to have been designed by M C Escher.

The government certainly knows where it wants to go, even if the destinations seem fairly alarming. With the backing of just 199 Tory MPs – the number of those who nominated her in the leadership contest – Theresa May has achieved a transformation of her party every bit as drastic as the change Jeremy Corbyn has brought about with the votes of 300,000 party members.

In Birmingham, the impression of a new regime was compounded by so many of the fallen big beasts staying away. Instead, they were on Twitter, where George Osborne was praising Ed Balls on Strictly Come Dancing, and Michael Gove declared that the cross-dressing sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys was “#puregenius”. Just a year ago, David Cameron was acclaimed at party conference as a conquering hero. How times change.


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It is increasingly irksome that Nick Timothy, one of Theresa May’s two chiefs of staff, is referred to as her “brain”, “the man who is really running Britain”, or “the power behind the throne”. How do people who use such terms think May coped when Timothy left his position as a special adviser in the Home Office to become the director of the New Schools Network? And how did the two of them end up on opposite sides during the EU referendum debate?

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My suspicion that this vocabulary is motivated by sexism is strengthened by how Fiona Hill, May’s other chief of staff, is never referred to in this way – despite her influence being just as evident as Timothy’s, particularly on immigration policy. I am heartened to learn that Timothy is also irritated by the refrain and feels that it belittles both Hill and his boss. Until it’s proved otherwise, we should assume that the power behind Theresa May is . . . Theresa May.


By us, for us

Most human endeavours bear the mark of their creators, and the new government is no exception. Both front of house and backstage, it has something of Theresa May about it: state-educated, lower middle to middle class and distinguished by years of long service to the Conservative Party.

The clear signal is that this is a government for middle-class people who have made something of themselves and wish to entrench their advantages, while offering a modest leg-up to the lower middle class. It is significantly less starry-eyed about the very rich than its immediate predecessor, but also less animated by the condition of the poor than its Labour opposition.

An appeal to the self-interest of the middle class has always been the Conservative trump card. That May and her government so embody that class only adds to the feeling that she and her administration will be in power for a long time.


Brum deal

The somewhat confusing inner workings of the conference hall aside, I like the city of Birmingham a great deal. It’s always a pleasure to have an excuse to visit, particularly now that it has a beautiful new library and a branch of Foyles bookshop at New Street.

Birmingham is Britain’s second city by population but it has been overlooked in recent years, and undeservedly so. Luckily, it will be the centre of attention in next year’s mayoral races: while the Greater Manchester and Merseyside mayoral elections should be routine victories for Labour’s Andy Burnham and Steve Rotherham, the battle to run the West Midlands will be finely balanced between the two big parties.

For that reason, I hope that Andy Street, the managing director of John Lewis who has been tapped by the Conservatives, gives Labour’s Siôn Simon a run for his money. I don’t want him to win, but a close race would give me more chances to visit Birmingham, and it would raise the city’s profile with other London-based hacks.


Freedom and control

The political class seems intent on the flavour of Brexit that will do the maximum damage to the British economy – exit from the single market and a reduction in migrant workers. May made it clear in Birmingham that controlling our borders comes before everything else, while Corbyn is opposed to Britain’s continuing membership of the single market.

It is difficult to argue with the idea that border control was at the core of the Brexit vote and to hold together the Conservative Party, May will have to make frequent appeals to “regaining our sovereignty” – an early example being her declaration that, in future, British troops will not face prosecution under article two (the right to life) and article five (the right to liberty) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The concept of “sovereignty” has a vice-like grip on the minds of many Conservatives, but the reality is that in a globalised world all countries sacrifice a measure of freedom. That might be through membership of a trade bloc or merely having to sell to one, as the United Kingdom will still have to do after Brexit.

Yet it appears to be the settled will of the Conservative Party that we voted to sacrifice economic prosperity for parliamentary sovereignty. However, as the left has always known, freedom isn’t worth much if you’re poor. My fear is that in leaving the single market, this might be a lesson that the right will have to learn as well. 

This article appears in the 05 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph