Tory Party Conference

[This is another of those uncharacteristically long posts, so you might not want to bother with it. Unless you, like me, enjoy reading about the trainwreck on permanent loop that is the contemporary Conservative Party.]

The Conservative Party conference continues to be a fun distraction from the serious business of the day. Once it was a rather grim occasion, since the assorted ghastlinesses on parade in Brighton or Blackpool had a rather firm grip on the apparatus of the British state, and what they thought, said and did mattered in our lives. But now that the Party has had the stuffing beaten out of it over eleven years of catastrophic failure, it’s just a sideshow: a bunch of people who don’t really matter any more, talking to the only people who listen to them. And me, since I’ve just been enjoying Iain Duncan Smith’s speech on the telly.

Shorn of the trappings of power, the Conservatives really are a threadbare crew: an odd combination of elderly activists (an image the Party is trying to shed), a good number of unpleasant-looking young people (probably ditto), and the occasional TV close-up of people vaguely familiar from the twilight of the Major administration (ditto). (And, somewhere, one assumes, there was Tim Collins — though I didn’t manage to recognise him. But I’m working on it.) What you see is certainly nothing to do with a government-in-waiting. And it’s still a very confused party, whose confusion is happily on display in this priceless snippet from Andrew Gimson’s account of Theresa May’s speech on Tuesday in yesterday’s Telegraph:

They [= Conservatives] have very good manners. And they want Mrs May to succeed. They applauded at any opportunity. They began to applaud as soon as she mentioned Enoch Powell, not realising that the only reason for mentioning him was to point out triumphantly that his old seat, Wolverhampton South-West, now has an Asian woman candidate, Sandy Verma…

Today’s attraction, if I can call him that, was Iain Duncan Smith. Now I’ve written in these columns about Iain Duncan Smith before, when he was elected leader of the Party. He commands attention not because he’s an attention-commanding kind of person, but because he isn’t. A Conservative party in danger of sliding into permanent mediocrity caught its own private spirit of the age perfectly by electing to its leadership a man who was going to be permanently mediocre. They did this before, with Major Major, so this may be an instance of history repeating itself as farce, as it has been known to do. But it does make for a surprisingly gripping spectacle (at least for people like me, and also for people like Matthew Turner, too).The speech this morning was a disaster. (It’s available here). I’ve heard some people on the TV trying not to call it a disaster. But it was a disaster, and the rest of this overlong post will point to some of its disastrous features.

First of all, the conference layout didn’t suit IDS. He stood on a platform, alone, with his audience on three sides and no lectern. I assume he was supposed to look accessible, but for a man with very little physical presence, he came across on television as isolated, uncomfortable in the spotlight. Nye Bevan said something about going naked into the conference chamber; I doubt we�ll come closer to seeing this metaphor-made-flesh than this, and it wasn�t a pretty sight. (OK, so a genuinely naked IDS would be an even unprettier sight, but I don�t want to go there.)

Then, the speech itself. There are some things he should avoid doing in his oratory (a kind word, for what we were served up, but it’ll do for the time being). Here’s a quick tour:

  • Early on he sought to label the government as corrupt, lying, and incompetent. The lying charge is a good one: ministers do say a lot of things which are not obviously true, and Mr Blair is casually and repeatedly dishonest in a way that, on the whole, his predecessors weren’t. But words like “incompetent” and “corrupt” still resonate far more powerfully with the memory of the Major government of 1992-7 in the public imagination than they do with our current lords and masters.
  • He should be careful not to exaggerate, too. It is just not true that the government’s “blackest act” was the outing of Dr Kelly. Ministers behaved irresponsibly, Mr Blair was (despite his denials) intimately involved, and consequences were tragic. But that�s not the same thing at all, and Mr Blair has done some far blacker things (many of them cheered on by the official Opposition).
  • Nor indeed is the UK in the grip of dire poverty. Unemployment is comparatively low, inflation is low, the number of people in work is high, the government has found some effective means of alleviating the condition of the very poor, and so on. This means that passages like this — “For some families Labour’s tax rises mean no holiday this year. The children’s clothes must last even longer. Millions have to work extra hours to make ends meet” — are misplaced, and he is not going to be able to persuade voters that a new Conservative government will be good for the poor.
  • When he reads parts of his speech like this one, detailing the problems faced by ordinary families, he has this “compassionate” voice that he slips into. It is obviously phoney.
  • He has a stupid way of talking about social problems. Labour says crime’s falling — but, look!, a woman was shot in Nottingham yesterday. Labour says the economy’s strong but, look!, 500 people were sacked the other day. The aggregate statistics don’t back up his claims, so he resorts to anecdotal evidence. But that’s stupid.

I was repeatedly struck by what an extremely reactive speech it was, responding to the political agendas shaped by other actors with more energy and more imagination than he can muster. To wit:

  • Mention of his own leadership in the first sentence could not help but remind his listeners of everything unkind the papers — the Daily Telegraph in the van — have been saying about him over the last few days.
  • His remarks about the Liberal Democrats were just vacuous partisan noises responding to recent events, mostly but not exclusively in Brent East. “They are not a party fit for government”, he said, one of those remarks which reminds you that the Tories patently aren’t, either, and which was followed by the ovation-inducing floppiness of, “and we are going after them!” (Bet the Lib Dems are scared.)
  • His rhetoric was derivative, too. There were echoes of Blair’s speech in Bournemouth (Blair: “I know many profoundly believe the action we took [over Iraq] was wrong. I do not at all disrespect anyone who disagrees with me.” IDS: “I know some say the war was wrong. And I respect their opinion.”) His soundbites were sad parodies of other politicians who had a better grip on the art of speaking: He would be “tough on tax and tough on the causes of tax”, he said, and he would “fight, fight and fight again to save the country I love”. And the ones that weren’t derivative were either pathetic (“And, yes [PAUSE], we plan to cut taxes!” [WILD APPLAUSE]) or incoherent (“The Quiet Man is turning up the volume”).

All of this was basically a function of the way in which IDS seems to have accepted one of the graver criticisms his critics can make of his party, which may be true, but which he should at least be attempting to deny. That is that the Tories are now effectively little more than disgruntled spectators in contemporary Britain, incapable of playing any kind of active role in shaping national life, of doing anything, in fact, that we might usefully label as politics.When he ran through a list of the various scandals in which the Government had been embroiled — Hinduja, Ecclestone, Mandelson, Mittal, Geoffrey Robinson, Mandelson again — it was striking that none of these had been provoked or deepened by the Conservative Opposition. All had been generated inside the government or provoked by media inquiries (or, in one case, by Lib Dem questioning in the House). Nor are there any recent stirring parliamentary performances whose memory he can invoke to rally the spirits of the Party faithful, because the Tory Party in parliament is basically useless, in a way that the Labour Opposition of the 1980s and 1990s never was. IDS is reduced to saying obvious things (Blair lies, the trains don’t run properly, and so on), and he insists that all this is very bad. But that is more like punditry than Opposition.

Indeed, if we play the game of imagining the circumstances under which Mr Duncan Smith might make it to Downing Street (yes, let’s pretend, just for a moment), they all involve the government self-destructing under the weight of its various rivalries or, if we like this kind of jargon, its internal contradictions. There’s no remotely plausible scenario which involves a British electorate being won over to Iainduncansmithery because of the appeal of his ideas or his policies, or because of the sheer brutal efficiency of the ruthless election-fighting machine that he has at his disposal (OK, that’s cruel). So the general reactivity and passivity of his stance might be a sensible reflection of current realities — which include yesterday’s headlines, last month’s by-election, and two general election defeats in 1997 and 2001 — but they don’t do anything to project his Party as anything other than a bunch of washed-up losers.

There were some silly moments. IDS mentioned that the Tories had the fastest growing youth movement in the country, and the BBC cut away to a shot of beaming geriatrics in the audience, which is a useful reminder of the reality that the average age of the members of the Conservative Party is still surprisingly high. That one wasn’t his fault.

Some were, though. The silliest moment of all — apart from a casual reference to our “first term in government” — was this sublime passage: “As Oliver Letwin has pledged, under the Conservatives there’ll be 80,000 fewer asylum seekers — and 40,000 more police officers.” Then he improvised (at least, I’m assuming he improvised, because this bit isn’t in the published version of his speech, but it’s this bit that made it so splendid): “If that’s hard to visualise”, he said, before returning to the script, “That’s twelve more police forces the size of the Lancashire Constabulary”. Because visualizing the Lancashire Constabulary en bloc and multiplying that image twelvefold is such a natural thing to be able to do… (Perhaps it’s easier for Tories, and especially for Tories in Lancashire).

All in all, the politics were incoherent. A promise of low taxes but indications of support for the government’s expensive foreign policy; a promise to cut tuition fees, end failing schools, relieve the plight of the poor, etc., with no suggestion that these might be expensive goals to realise, or that government might have to make some hard choices about priorities along the way. “Waste” would be cut, we were told — but that’s a dreadful cop-out, as Arnold Schwarzenegger is about to find out. His “I have delivered” claim was thus a piece of meaningless bravado.

The only time in the whole speech when he came even half alive was in the passage on Europe. Then, only then, did his words seem to come from the heart, and only then was the response from the audience at all spontaneous. (The rest of the time there were these stage-managed standing ovations, where on cue everyone rose to their feet following the people at the front: they didn�t look keen on the TV pictures, but still bored, impassive, polite). He was crass, of couse (he can’t not be crass); his remarks about the consequences of the new European constitution were crude ranting; and another of his soundbites was weak (“If the government does not give the people a say on the constitution, that will not be the last word, I promise you”: Them’s fighting words). In these passages of his speech at least he was able to present a kind of authenticity.

But this is again part of the problem: the UK population doesn’t seem to want the Euro that much, and would probably reject the new European constitution if it were given the chance, which it won’t be. But the Conservatives clearly don’t have a strategy for transforming strands of Euroscpetical public opinion into election victory — that’s what William Hague tried in 2001, and he failed badly (“Ten days to save the pound”, etc.) — and to carry on down this road will be to continue to drive that part of the British centre-right which still rather likes the European Union (because it’s good for their material prosperity or because their politics are basically Christian Democrat), even further into the embrace of New Labour. By postponing a Euro-referendum, Mr Blair can keep the Tories paralysed and ineffectual. And to dwell on Europe is again to remind the world that IDS is at bottom a bit of low-grade early-1990s vintage Eurosceptic parliamentary trash, which was somehow transmogrified into being Party leader by the desperately unhappy vicissitudes of Tory politics over the course of the decade from 1992.

The Europe passage aside, the only time that he seemed comfortable, or his audience seemed comfortable with him, was when he was making childish jokes about Charles Kennedy (who won’t raise taxes on spirits) or Carole Caplin (who won’t allow the colour Brown in No.10). It’s a childish party with a childish leader; the speech was feeble.

That’s not a problem for all of us out here who continue to despise the Conservative Party: we don’t want to see another Tory government, and we know that we’re not going to get it with IDS at the helm. But it should be a problem for any Tories out there, though they might reasonably wonder whether anyone else would do any better.

But if any Conservative politicians or journalists or other admirers come away from this speech spinning that IDS has turned the corner and that election victory is in sight, we can reasonably ask them what they’ve been smoking, and on what planet.

UPDATE [9.10.2003]: Ros Taylor‘s piece in the Guardian is shorter and funnier than this one. You might want to try there, instead.

UPDATE [10.10.2003]: Whoops. I’ve got this one completely wrong. Melanie Phillips says that this was a “very good speech. Iain Duncan Smith finally did what was necessary. He told a story in simple and direct terms that joined up the dots, provided a coherent framework of principles on which to hang all his emerging policies, and — at last — spoke from the heart to explain the passion that drives him”. So, that’s that sorted out then. She probably thinks IDS’s performance on the Today programme this morning shows that he’s a man on top of his game who’s more than ready to take up the reins of power.

UPDATE [13.10.2003]: And Oliver Letwin said that “It was an absolutely barnstorming performance. He took the hall and reasserted his authority and he looked like a prime minister today, didn’t he?”

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