1. BUILDING CONTROL
This is strangest post-election “victory” party conference in modern memory. So when Theresa May gets up to make her big speech, she knows her task is to reassure the party and the country that she is both listening and in charge. She has to (to borrow a phrase) take back control of the political agenda.
One key way to do that is to address the running sore that is Britain’s housing crisis, a crisis that is central to the fears of young people that they have no stake in the future. HuffPost UK was first to reveal last night that that the big policy oomph of May’s speech would be a new pledge to unleash the biggest council house building programme in a generation. Town halls will be given new freedoms to build, as well as new requirements to meet local need. The Sun, which had sniffed out the story too, says the plan is the biggest since Harold ‘Supermac’ Macmillan’s boom of the 1950s.
First Secretary of State Damian Green was coy on detail but confirmed on the Today programme: “we expect this to start a rebirth of council house building”. The aim is to remind a Brexit-obssessed conference that May is returning to her key ‘burning injustices’ themes on the steps of No.10 way back in July 2016. It’s also a reminder to Britain that she is no laissez-faire Tory and wants to ‘fix’ broken markets.
The official overnight trail of her speech was not about housing, but all about her determination to ignore the “gossip” about her own position. She will reassure the voters her party was “not worrying about our job security, but theirs”. That line doubled up as a warning to Boris Johnson, yet it is Boris once more who has sucked in the oxygen of publicity (see below). Note however that it’s not just Johnson who has gone off script with ‘red lines’ on Brexit. The FT has a telling story today that some ministers want to extend the two-year transition by a further nine months to the end of 2021.
We’re told this will be a more ‘personal’ speech from May too. It sounds like yet another British version ‘Let Barlet be Barlet’, that famous West Wing episode where a President decides to be true to himself. And spookily enough, on Twitter Tom Hamilton was quick to spot the direct similarity with a Bartlet speech about our “limitless capacity” to meet challenges from within ourselves. The danger is that if her aides really do ‘Let Theresa be Theresa’, the public may just shrug and say ‘Is that it?’
2. THE SACK RACE
Boris Johnson’s speech to conference was titled by his aides ‘Let the Lion Roar’ (though hilariously it was titled by CCHQ ‘Winning The Future’). The Daily Telegraph, the BoJo house journal, says he ‘channelled Churchill’ and roared to the party conference. But for many of the rest of us, the real message was more like that 1980s ‘ah-weem-away’ pop hit: The Lion Sleeps Tonight. As I wrote in my snap analysis yesterday (see HERE), Johnson’s speech felt like a Telegraph column, long on rhetorical flourish but short on detail. And most importantly, he backed off any challenge to May, sounding strangely impotent, and de-fanged on Brexit.
As HuffPost grabbed audience members afterwards, the defining characteristic was a sense that Boris had cheered them all up by reminding them they had won the election – coupled with a relief that he was ‘on message’. Yet he certainly wasn’t on message just a few hours later.
Yes, his ‘joke’ about Libyan ‘dead bodies’ at a fringe meeting in the Midland Hotel prompted swift calls for his resignation, from Tory MPs Heidi Allen and Anna Soubry and Labour’s Emily Thornberry. Backbencher Sarah Wollaston told Today he ‘should consider his position’. Boris claimed on Twitter that he was making a serious point about IEDs killing civilians and his enemies were ‘playing politics’. But this felt like desperate dissembling. Read his exact quote: “They have a got brilliant vision to turn Sirte, with the help of the municipality of Sirte, into the next Dubai. The only thing they’ve got to do is clear the dead bodies.” He thought that juxtaposing Dubai and dead bodies would get him a cheap laugh.
Whether it gets him the sack looks highly unlikely, given May’s lack of authority. Her ‘enforcer’ Damian Green has told the BBC: “We should all be careful in our use of language”. He added that “sensitivity at all times” was needed by “all politicians”. Will we get an apology from Boris before May’s speech?
Old conference hands have a golden rule: never do a fringe after your main speech. This is because after the adrenaline and relief, you may as well be drunk. Released from the strictures of a scripted speech, the temptation is to improvise and you end up over-reaching for the same applause and laughs. Yet the real reason for the lack of fringe benefits, post-speech is that you risk creating a bigger story than your main event - “pissing on your own headlines”, as one veteran put it to me last night.
3. DUNCAN DOH! NUTS
Iain Duncan Smith has long been affectionately nicknamed ‘Iain Dunkin Donuts’ by one senior Cabinet minister I know. Yet today, that moniker ought to apply to Sir Alan Duncan, the Foreign Office minister, after his extraordinary attack on Leave voters.
Speaking at another conference thousands of miles away from Manchester, Sir Al told a Chicago audience on Monday that Brexit was down to a “tantrum” thrown by the British working class over immigration. For good measure, he added that Brits often complained about Europeans taking the jobs they themselves had refused to do. The Guardian has the scoop, proving once again just how wonderfully candid ministers can be in a Q&A that follows a speech. In a counterpoint to Boris, will Leavers demand Duncan’s resignation?
The Guardian and Indy both pick up on another Johnson causing trouble, in another fringe. Boris’s brother Jo is normally allergic to making news, but he said students struggling with finances could “live very modestly and have a frugal existence, focusing on their studies”. Others may choose “a different lifestyle”. Riffing on lifestyle choices was probably not wise given the Tory challenge to win back the youth vote (and their raised threshold for fees is a very good idea).
And the ‘i’ newspaper has its own scoop that ministers are ‘preparing’ to bring back maintenance grants for university. It says the idea is not progressed far enough to get in the Budget, but if true it would certainly help the Tories persuade students - and just as importantly their parents and grandparents – that they’re really listening to the anger felt during the election.
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4. DAD BIBLE
Iain Duncan Smith’s mix of religious zeal and Tory philosophy means he is still fondly regarded by his party’s rank and file (many of whom remember he was unceremoniously ousted by MPs despite winning the membership’s backing). And that evangelical edge was on display at a fringe yesterday when he declared that unmarried men are a ‘problem’ for society.
In a switch from traditional condemnation of unmarried mothers, IDS said that men out of wedlock were “released to do all the things they wouldn’t normally do” such as committing crimes, drinking too much, taking drugs and fathering multiple children. “Out there, these boys particularly, when left without the concept of what it [marriage] is about will find the alternative on the internet.” The fringe event was the only one at the party conference discussing family breakdown, IDS pointed out, before adding: “The truth is I sit in a building where people are scared stiff of this subject.”
One high profile married dad of six yesterday highlighted another subject that dare not speak its name here in Manchester: the lack of party democracy. Jacob Rees-Mogg told a fringe that Tory conference treated its members “appallingly”, expecting them to turn up “Kim Jong-un style” and clap every speech –while their policy input was ignored. I mentioned in the WaughZone yesterday that there was no real debate or vote on Brexit here. Will May be bolder here too one day?
5. MAIL ORDER
The Communication Workers Union was in Manchester yesterday, reminding the Tory conference that their pensions and pay dispute with Royal Mail has not gone away. Showing an impressive command of PR (the Daily Mail splashes its front page) the union released the emphatic results of their ballot for industrial action: 89.1% support on a turnout of 73%. That was higher than when posties last went on strike nearly a decade ago and crucially well above the new 50% turnout threshold imposed by the Conservatives.
HuffPost was at the CWU press conference and Ellie Long, a Parcelforce employee, said the union had run the “most effective industrial campaign ever”. She added: “In every corner of the UK, our members have risen up.” With all of us ordering more online goods every year, it’s worth listening. Will ‘Black Friday’ be hit on November 24, the new advent calendar day for Christmas shopping?
Royal Mail management is more than aware it has a fight on its hands, and is already making its case that its pension scheme is one of the best in the private sector. Some insiders believe the union is just using the ballot to gain leverage in talks, rather than actually go ahead and walk out. The last time there was a national postal strike, new courier firms popped up and have since taken chunks of its business. The CWU can keep its new strike threat in its backpocket for the next six months.