1. RUNNING SORE
Boris Johnson was out running on the streets of Manchester this morning with a Gallagher. His jogging partner was not one of the Oasis brothers, but Tony Gallagher, editor of the Sun who now has a tradition of exercising with the Foreign Secretary before the conference day starts. And thanks to a new ConservativeHome poll putting him back in top spot as activists’ choice to be leader, Boris’s smile may be sunnier than ever. Acting as the party’s conscience on Brexit appears to have worked.
Although he is paid by the Telegraph, The Sun is seen as Johnson’s secret weapon (it was a crucial backer through the Brexit referendum) in targeting the voters the Tories need. Yet the backlash against his weekend interview with the paper was palpable here in Manchester yesterday, as MPs and ministers lined up with a mix of disdain, weariness, anger and ridicule. One Cabinet minister, far from a Remainer, told HuffPost UK: “People who aspire to lead the Conservatives always forget who the audience is. It’s not the membership, it’s their colleagues in Parliament”
Boris’s lack of support among fellow MPs, particularly the 2015 and 2017 intakes, is his fundamental weakness. In Parliamentary terms, his leadership hopes are marked by the loneliness of the long-distance runner. Yet as he pushes his Brexit ‘red lines’ and his allies hint that May could be out within a year, Johnson knows he can grab the headlines better than most in the Cabinet. (Only today he tells the Sun he’d like to expand his empire to take in Department for International Development).
And there is a very uneasy mood here in Manchester. One former minister told me that a PM always needs to bookend party conference with strong performances on Marr on Sunday and in the conference hall on Wednesday. She failed the first test, he pointed out. Photographers caught the PM sneezing on stage yesterday, and even loyalists (who want her to stay until Brexit) fear she has given the Tory party a nasty cold it may take years to shrug off.
What underlies the strangeness is that this is the first post-election conference in years where a party won yet lost its majority. The lack of energy compared to Labour is obvious. A clip of Damian Green being greeted by a half empty hall, with a half-hearted ‘ovation’, followed by a stumble, summed it up perfectly (see below). It was telling that the only person who really got the crowd going yesterday was someone who is not even an MP let alone in Cabinet: Ruth Davidson. Former No10 aide Katie Perrior said the policy offers so far were ‘mediocre’.
Last night, it was notable that David Davis was very active indeed on the reception circuit and in the hotel bars, moving from event to event staged by activists from Wales, Cyprus and Scotland (he ducked out just as the PM arrived). But Boris too was highly visible (again, ensuring his presence didn’t coincide with Mays, arriving at the ConHome party well after she had left).
Maybe that’s why Philip Hammond on the Today programme couldn’t resist trying to put Boris back in his box. The Chancellor said Johnson’s line that the Brexit transition couldn’t last ‘a second more’ than two years was a mere “rhetorical flourish”. And on the key issue of whether Boris could be sacked, he replied: “We all serve at the Prime Minister’s discretion it’s up to her to decide….I always operate on the principle that everybody is sackable”.
The Guardian reports MPs have texted Boris to tell him to quit. MPs tell the Times the party would weather his sacking. Yet the PM’s awkward laugh on Marr, when asked if he was sackable, may well have been seen by Boris as further licence to thrill. Unless she acts, the running sore will keep on running.
2. CORBYN CAPTURE AND STORAGE
The pre-dawn news of Monarch airlines going bust, leaving 700,000 people in the lurch, is another reminder of the downsides of disruptive capitalism. Finally collapsing under fierce competition from low-cost rivals like Ryanair and Easyjet, the bankrupt firm was the focus of intense activity from ministers yesterday as the state had to step in to help get people home.
The Tories are still searching for answers to deep public unease about the way the economy works. Having done a Maybot on Marr (saying how amazing the election results were), last night Theresa May herself had a new line (exclusively caught on video by HuffPost). She told a Women2Win fringe meeting: “We thought there was a political consensus. Jeremy Corbyn has changed that. It’s our job to go out and make those arguments all over again.” Yes, you read that right: Jeremy Corbyn has changed that.
This candour (she repeated the line at the ConHome reception later, so it’s no accident) will be welcomed by Tory MPs who’ve long wanted May to confront the reality that Corbyn’s attack on austerity and squeezed wages struck an electoral nerve. Tory MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan revealed yesterday what many backbenchers say privately: her own 18-year-old son probably wouldn’t have voted for her. Tory policy chief George Freeman was even more candid yesterday (see below) about his party’s need to capture a flavour of Corbyn’s popular appeal, without being captured by his philosophy.
Former policy and manifesto guru Oliver Letwin said the Conservatives had to be prepared to put up taxes to fund things like social care. Hammond, who will try to defend capitalism in his big speech today, told Today that he certainly was ready to jack up taxes if the rocky road to and through Brexit required it. Asked directly about tax rises, he said: “I’ve got the courage to do what is necessary to support the British economy….We have the flexibility to respond to difficult events. We will have to be prepared to support the economy during this difficult period.”
3. GAUKE UNCORKED
Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke has his own big speech today, but we had a pretty good sneak preview of his main announcement at our WaughZone Live fringe yesterday: he is not going to back off the roll-out of Universal Credit. Gauke will instead detail how to get more ‘advance payments’ to claimants who are left without any cash during the six-week waiting period for the new benefit.
As their local caseloads begin to groan with complaints, Tory MPs are aware of the dangers of the UC roll-out. Backbencher Heidi Allen, who is leading 12 of her party, in voicing concerns, told the Today prog the system lacks a “moral compass”. “If we are celebrating the fact that advance payments are increasing and will increase, that means that the fundamental design of the system, which as a minimum is six weeks to wait, doesn’t work.”
Yet Gauke, backed by the PM, is managing to defuse the crisis. Aware that there is no legislative flashpoint where Tory rebels could pounce, Gauke is nevertheless combining his typically reasonable tone with a new stress on giving more support to those most vulnerable to the switch-over to UC. His main point is that talk of an acceleration of the system from 5 to 50 job centres is misleading, stressing that the number of claimants will rise from just 8% to 10% by January.
Gauke kept telling me yesterday that his seven years at the Treasury made him even more aware of the need to balance the books. And in a wide-ranging interview that covered everything from pension tax relief to PIP payments (watch the whole thing HERE), I was struck by his honesty in saying he wanted to be Chancellor, rather than PM, one day. If the Tories do win the next election, watch out for the dark horse coming up on the rails.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Cabinet minister Damian Green go for a short trip after his conference speech.
4. FREEMAN’S CATALOGUE
Tory MP George Freeman, who happens to also chair the PM’s policy board, is a thoughtful soul. Yesterday, he catalogued the long list of challenges facing his party in the wake of losing its majority. And he put his finger on the real problem in attracting younger voters: “Why should I support capitalism if I have absolutely no chance of earning any capital? They’re not wrong, they’re not mad. They’re experiencing the market of today.”
But Freeman had a bigger point to make, which was that for all the mickey-taking about his ‘Tory Glastonbury’ festival of ideas, intergenerational unfairness was the burning issue that had to be addressed. “We can’t be complacent about the data. It is quite severe,” he said. Freeman also said that “culturally, millennials and the young are not socialists at all” (as another minister confided privately yesterday, the pro-Uber petition proved that) and Tories had to find a way to help them without ape-ing Labour. “They want this system to work for them. If we go down the road of ‘money tree’, turn-on-the-taps, be-all-things-to-all-people Corbyn solutions then they will vote for the real thing.”
Freeman’s candour about ‘the middle’ – those in their 30s and 40s on not huge wages – was just as striking. “They are always working like slaves, the tax slaves of modern Britain, to pay off the debts of yesterday never mind today and tomorrow.”
And he revealed that even he, a Tory MP earning a substantial salary, had personally experienced the problems of Generation Rent. “When you think I’m about as ideal a tenant as you can get. I don’t have wild taste in music, I live on my own. My landlord treated me pretty badly and when I complained, they said ‘well someone else can rent it’.” Freeman proves that a bit of ‘grey skies’ pondering is just as important as ‘blue skies thinking’. Now for the hard bit: policy solutions.
5. SPANISH INQUISITION
As shocking as it was, the brutal footage from Catalonia’s independence referendum yesterday was a gift to the region’s breakaway movement. Baton-wielding police attacking firefighters protecting polling stations, women being dragged by their hair, rubber bullets fired and more than 800 people injured. Madrid walked straight into the trap of appearing to the world to be the oppressors rather than the upholders of the constitutional and the law. Venezuela’s President Maduro went on his own state-run TV station to attack Spain’s PM Rajoy: “Who is the dictator now?”
The Catalan government had some stats: 2.2 million people voted, a turnout of 42%, and 90% backed independence. A Catalan spokesman said more than 750,000 votes could not be counted because polling stations were closed and ballot boxes confiscated. There’s no way the referendum had any internationally-accepted standards of registration, so the figures are dubious. That’s the only crumb of comfort for Madrid, which has otherwise handled the crisis ineptly.
Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont was swift last night to call on the EU to ‘intervene’. And that’s a challenge the EU will find difficult. One senior Tory told me yesterday that Brussels really ought to condemn the violence, given that has warned the Poles to uphold European standards of democracy and judiciary. But Boris yesterday sent out a strong statement of support for Spain, saying it was a ‘good friend’ and its constitution (forbidding independence referendums) should be respected.
Johnson’s position was the Foreign Office orthodoxy, but his lack of any recognition of the violence contrasted with others. Belgium and Slovenia’s PMs expressed concern, while Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable, Nicola Sturgeon suggested Boris’s statement was ‘shamefully weak’.